Dark Omega

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Chapter 43 NEVER SEE ME COMING

Winter dragged on, stubbornly refusing to turn into spring. It was the same as every year since the invasion. The boy had heard it had to do with soot in the atmosphere or some such. From all the bombs and the burning cities. He didn’t care. Bad weather was like a friend, covering his back.

He was fourteen or fifteen years old—a man grown by some standards. By his own reckoning, he had become a man—or something else entirely—when he killed the scavenger girl whose name he never knew. It was the one defining moment of his life—before or after he cut the girl’s throat and watched her die. It wasn’t the first time he had killed, but it was the first time he had done it for himself. Before, he had sought vengeance, had been doing the right thing—the girl the boy had taken because he wanted to, because he could.

The act transformed him, turning him from a weak, lost child into a savagely independent and bloodthirsty creature. Before the transformation, he had been content with mere survival. Now he craved more from life; he wanted blood, he needed death.

He became a predator, stalking the ruins of Thira—they called it Athens now as if the goddess Athena would look twice at the place—looking for human prey. Vaxandii or Akakian, it mattered not. Twenty-nine, all told, sent to Hades throughout the dark months of winter. He could have killed many more. Dozens. Hundreds. With the rifle, he could have slain them all. But shooting people held no pleasure. This the boy learned after shooting two patrolling Vaxandii in the head from a rooftop. He needed no scope to call them to account. Four hundred meters over iron sights was nothing—like shooting fish in a barrel.

No, the rifle he would not use. It was no more satisfying than painting graffiti. It had to be up close and personal, had to be bloody, had to be blade work: the boy, the surgeon’s blade, and an artery. He had to look them in the eyes as they died, had to dip his right hand in their blood as their soul’s light faded. It was the only way he could endure what remained of his life.

After the first handful of murders, they started making stories about the boy. He was the Shadow of Thira, a terrible demon stalking the ruins of the fallen city. Summoned by the many deaths and the atrocities committed. They were not far off the mark. His infamy grew with every passing week. Many more deaths he wasn’t responsible for were added to his legend. It was no mean feat to be noticed in the hell-hole that was Athens.

His not-quite-a-friend Himilco was the only person to realize who the killer was. The boy could see it in his eyes the last time he visited the Cold Market. He had murdered a dozen by then—and been attributed with many more. They had greeted one another the same way they always did, with a nod and few words. Their eyes met, and the boy knew the slave knew his secret. And Himilco knew that the boy knew that he knew. And so forth, ad infinitum. The boy also knew the old apothecary would never rat on him. He could see it in the man’s eyes—his soul was no more challenging to read than a book.

But their equilibrium had been upset by the boy’s transformation into an apex predator. It was time for the Ghost of Athens and an old slave to part ways. They didn’t say their goodbyes in the traditional way. Instead, Himilco gave the boy a free run of the place, while he, for the first time as long as Haides had known him, partook in some of the blueweed.

When the boy was done plundering the apothecary’s cabinets, he slashed the old man up a bit. Good enough to be convincing, but not so much as to be life-threatening. He overturned a cabinet, sending it crashing into the floor, and flowed into the shadows—his only true friend—under the stairs leading up to the second floor.

Himilco’s owner, a former sub-officer of the Vaxandi 112th, came downstairs to check what the fuss was about. As he neared the bottom of the stairs, the boy lashed out from the darkness, quick as a snake, cutting the hamstrings on his left leg. The old soldier screamed—fear and pain mixing into a cocktail the boy couldn’t get enough of—and crashed into the floor at the base of the stairs. The Ghost of Thira could have cut his throat as easy as he’d cut a pie, but he didn’t. Instead, he pretended to be startled by the blood-drenched apothecary feebly trying to come to his master’s aid. The boy grabbed his satchel—now full of loot—and jumped out the window.

His debt to Himilco had been settled.

------

Haides did not go to the Cold Market again, but he kept an eye on the comings and goings. After killing a few would-be traders, travelers and locals alike started making offerings to the Ghost of Thira, begging him to spare their lives. To be appeased, like a god. The boy found it terribly amusing.

Himilco was released from bondage just as the cherry trees finally bloomed. Even wounded, the slave had stood up to the Ghost of Thira—and thus saved his owner’s life. He was proclaimed a free man and adopted into the household of his master. The apothecary continued to serve the soldier-turned-shop-owner diligently. A while later, the old master succumbed to an illness no one could diagnose or cure. The dead man had bequeathed his estate to his former slave, his young Akakian wife included. It was quite a romantic tale. The Ghost of Thira, though he preferred the blade, noted that poison could accomplish great things if used at the right time on the right target.

That same winter, insurgents gained in power and secured several vital victories over Verrigan’s lackeys. The Ghost learned that a Starwalker captain had supplied the Akakian resistance with arms and other equipment. The price he had charged was steep indeed, but these were men and women with nothing to lose, so they paid whatever it took. Verrigan responded by making life even worse for the surviving Akakians. Which only galvanized the rebels.

Trouble started spreading to other towns and nearby districts. Finally, Verrigan was forced to turn off-world for aid. The price demanded by the Veiled Hand was even steeper than the insurgents had paid the Starwalker.

The Ghost moved quickly across a mountain of rubble, keeping as low a profile as possible without sacrificing speed. He had come this way many times before and knew the place well enough to navigate without much light to go by. He rarely needed light anymore. His eyes had adapted to a life in darkness and shadow.

He ducked underneath a slab of fallen nanocrete, wormed his way through a hidden crack, slid half a dozen meters through a broken ventilation pipe, and crawled on his belly through a fissure in the outer wall of the fallen residential highrise. Safely inside, he hid and waited, motionless and silent. Whatever hunted the hunter was the size of an adult—it could not follow the same route. But it might have allies or drones.

Lo and behold, before long, the Ghost heard hear the almost inaudible hum of micro-fans—a dull grey recon drone slowly floated into view. It did a quick survey of its immediate surroundings. Finding no trace of its prey, the drone activated a scanner array. Sweeping arcs of greenish light spilled across the ruined room, searching and probing.

Before the drone could deploy its sonic resonance imager, the Ghost brought up his trusted sliver pistol, borrowed long ago from a man he hardly remembered anymore. He fired a single shot. The high-velocity flechette hit the mark, punched through the weakest part of the TTC—titanium-tungsten-carbide—armor, and made short work of the tiny machine cortex inside.

There was a deep thumping sound followed by a rush of heat and dust coming out of the fissure in the wall. Breaching charge. The Ghost had hoped to lose his pursuer, but now the hunt was on again. He considered lying in ambush but decided against it. He had no idea what he was up against, only it was dangerous. There could be more than one enemy. He ran for the hoist shafts. Behind him, a couple of stun grenades went off—had he stayed put, he would now be incapacitated, easy prey for whoever was coming down the widened breach.

The Ghost slipped through the half-closed access doors and stepped to the right, grabbing hold of the utility ladder he knew was there. He half scrambled, half dropped until he reached the sixth floor. That was as far as the shaft was traversable. He got out into the corridor, resumed running.

Mocking laughter, not far behind. Anti-grav drop harness.

The bastard had been hunting the Ghost for hours. It was one of the foreign predators. One day the Ghost was on top of the food chain. The next, the ruins of Thira—or Athens or whatever you called it—were full of unknown men and women that were every bit as skilled as he was. Only bigger and stronger and much better equipped.

The foreigners were methodically going through the ruins, killing all they came across. Verrigan’s off-world assassins had come to deal with the rebels, once and for all. And the only way to make sure they got them all was to kill anyone not firmly under the First Minister’s control. The Ghost of Thira included. He had managed to avoid their attention—until now. The Ghost wasn’t sure how the assassins had picked him up, but it didn’t matter. He hadn’t been careful enough, and now it was his time to die.

He sensed movement to the right and rear, just on the other side of a tattered polymer curtain. This part of the building had been under refurbishment when the war came. Needless to say, the work was never completed. With nothing to win by running, he turned around and went on the offense. The Ghost moved across the intervening space without a sound, GI bayonet reverse-gripped in his left, and the sliver pistol in an overlapping right-hand grip.

There was a strong sense of impending doom. The Ghost threw himself forward in the nick of time—a burst of strange projectiles whistled past overhead. He rolled up into a crouch, the target fat in his sights. No psychics were required to hit—he was just three steps away—the Ghost pulled the trigger.

The gun didn’t fire. An image of Luca, warning him against offending the spirit of the weapon, flashed through the boy’s head. Was that why the pistol had failed now? Was the ghost in the machine real after all?

A well-placed kick to the genitals put the Ghost of Thira out of action, stunning him. The next blow caught him on the temple. It sent the boy crashing face-first into the floor. Before he could recover, his hands were restrained, and a self-constricting sack pulled over his head.

He tried to struggle, tried to break free, but it was hopeless. The muzzle of a gun was pressed into the small of his back. The trigger was pulled. The boy flinched, but there was no gunshot, no booming noise, no flesh torn, just a little sting—and the pain that followed it. He screamed, half in agony, half out of wounded pride: the Shadow of Thira had been brought low.

------

“He didn’t kill you, who would have guessed?” Marcus said. “Why not? And not another Luca-like story, please.”

“Curious? Good. Investigators should always be curious. Goes with the territory,” Haides replied, “at least it used to be like that when I was a Prefect.”

“You made Prefect?” Marcus was mildly surprised. Trained killers had their uses, but they rarely rose high in the ranks. They were used until they were no longer needed, then discarded.

“Yes, I made it to Prefect. At the tender age of twenty-six. Not the youngest ever to be promoted, but we don’t all have your talents, Marcus.”

“We’ll leave your future career hanging there for now,” Marcus replied. “Let’s stick to the story.”

Haides’s predatory smile turned into a playful grin. “I wasn’t killed because I was part of the payment. The Veiled Hand was handsomely compensated in Livres and war booty. But there was another clause in their contract: they were allowed to claim any Protasian civilian under the age of fourteen. I was not technically under fourteen, but I was small and skinny. I could easily pass for a boy of twelve, younger even. And who was counting anyway?”

“So that’s how you ended up a trained assassin?

“That’s how I ended up a trained assassin,” Haides took a deep breath. “How about we break here, and when you return tomorrow, I’ll tell you all about my time with the Veiled Hand? I don’t want you all worn out and irritable like you were yesterday.”

“Agreed,” Marcus said and severed the connection.

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