Dark Omega

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Chapter 46 COUNTERSTRIKE

Marcus stood in the stone corridor, blood dripping from his hand, the dead heaped at his feet. He waited for the real guards to arrive, seeing them draw closer in time and space, his vision piercing stone, metal, and time with equal ease.

A squad of gold-cloaked Cerberi—real ones, not infiltrators—arrived two and a half minutes after the last of Marcus’s assailant fell. There were six of them in total, moving as one, their ridiculous—yet deadly—weapons raised, ready to strike against any threat to the pentacle’s security.

“Show ’em,” one of them shouted.

“I am not armed,” Marcus said and lifted his arms, slowly. The guards surrounded him, six matter-disruptive halberds pointed at his chest.

“What happened here?” The helmet’s voice modulator couldn’t conceal the fact that this was a man used to command, to having his orders followed. The leader of the pack.

“They lifted their hands against the Dragon, and reaped his wrath,” Marcus replied and held out the golden signet ring with the dragon rampant—the symbol of Dragon Order. “I am Quaestor Marcus Aurelian. I’m on a mission for the Assembly,” he lied. “I carry the Dark Omega.” That part was real enough.

The guards went from hostile via confused and uncertain to subservient in the span of a heartbeat. They say the Order is a shadow of its former self, that we are a joke, that the Dragon is not real. But when push comes to shove, you’re still afraid of His wrath.

“They were posing as Dragon Order agents. But I assure you, they are not. As you can see, the Dragon is on my side, not theirs.”

“Yes, Quaestor,” the leader replied.

Before he could say anything more, Marcus uttered the dreaded words: “I invoke the Right of Incision.”

The six guards fell back a pace, their weapons pointed anywhere but at Marcus.

“To the first degree.”

“Yes, Quaestor,” the six men and women replied in unison. Electronic filtering couldn’t keep the relief out of their voices.

“These impostors and would-be assassins have already been executed for their crimes. Now bear witness as I consign them to the Dragon’s cleansing flames.”

The Cerberi couldn’t move away from the fallen fast enough. Two went down on their knees, praying.

Marcus called the flames, a roaring bonfire that feasted on dead flesh, bathing the corridor in a hellish glare. I cannot let them examine the corpses. It might cast doubts as to who’s serving the Order and not.

“Two of you will go stand guard outside the interrogation chamber I’m using. Anyone tries to get in, no matter who: kill them.”

The guards looked at one another, their confusion evident.

“You two,” Marcu said and pointed at a pair. “Go.”

They spun around and ran down the smoke-filled corridor. Somewhere nearby, hidden fans whirred to life, starting to clear out the contaminated air.

“You two,” he pointed at another pair, “will locate Chief Librarian Pisonis. Bring her to her quarters and make sure she remains there until I return. If she resists, you may hurt her, but not kill her. Tie her up if you have to. Go.”

They snapped off a salute and ran down the corridor.

“You,” Marcus said, looking at the squad leader, “will come with me to the vehicle pool. I need to do a quick errand, and I don’t have time for constant security checks. See me past them without delay, or watch your men burn. The Dragon has had about enough of this place.”

“Yes, Quasetor.”

“You,” he said to the final man. “Stay here and help them clean up this mess. The remains go straight into bio-hazard containers, no exceptions.”

“Your will, My Lord!”

“After you’re done with that, you’ll join the chief, and the pair of you will find out how these scum got into the Pentacle. I expect a full report when I get back.”

“Do you think they had inside aid?” the guard said.

“I’m counting on it,” Marcus replied. “Now, let’s go,” he said to the chief and started jogging down the stone hallway. The gold-clad security officer fell in behind.

------

Kwame was waiting for Marcus in the vehicle pool. He had powered up a blue-and-white hopper and was idling. The passenger door was open, as were the launch bay’s shutters.

Marcus ran forward and vaulted into the waiting vehicle.

“You’re bleeding, boss.”

“It’s only a scratch. Four tried to take me inside, a couple more is running. Go,” Marcus barked at Kwame, “we don’t have much time.”

“How little?” the security man replied as he pushed the throttle forward. The aircar jumped ahead, clearing the edge of the landing bay before the door had finished closing behind Marcus.

“We should already be there, kind of little,” Marcus shouted over the roar of the turborotors as he began strapping in.

The cabin door finished closing, and the noises of the outside world faded. “That little, eh? I know a couple of shortcuts.”

“It won’t be enough,” Marcus said. “We must go faster. Faster than you have ever driven.”

“Sure thing, boss man,” Kwame chirped. The hopper was already well over the speed limit and accelerating.

“Close your eyes.”

“Say again?” Kwame’s multi-faceted eyes were his pride and joy. They had served him well since he installed them, providing him with the edge needed to survive the neon streets of his youth.

“Close your eyes,” Marcus repeated. “You will see through my eyes—metal won’t do for this. Trust in the Dragon. We’ve not come this far only to fail.”

“You’re more than welcome to take over,” Kwame said and pointed at the dormant auxiliary controls in front of Marcus’s seat.

“I’m not a great pilot,” Marcus replied and held up his right hand. He’d wrapped a makeshift bandage around it, but blood was seeping through. “And it’s been a rough day. You drive, I’ll guide you. It’s the best solution right now.”

“Rough day indeed,” Kwame said. He closed his eyes, a grim smile on his lips. If I survive this, I’m gonna put a baby in Amaya. Gotta get me some grandchildren to tell this about. Then he remembered: he’d broken up with Amaya, and she hadn’t even blinked.

“Watch out,” Marcus called.

Kwame’s eyes flew open, and he saw. Before him, the lights of the floating city blinked like jewels in firelight. Everything was crystal clear, the colors brighter, the shadows darker. It was like he was seeing the world for the first time with his own eyes. Up until now, he’d only looked through a dirty, cracked lens.

He swerved to avoid an oncoming aircar. It’s too late, we’re gonna crash.

But they didn’t. Time slowed to a crawl, and the universe became a more complicated place than Kwame had ever imagined it could be: he could see them, the branching paths of the future. Like a great tree, the future grew, trunk splitting into large branches, then into smaller branches and twigs. If he hadn’t been used to having multi-focusing eyes, he would not have been able to cope with the sudden onslaught of information. Kwame chose one branch that didn’t lead to a collision, and the hopper slid past the other vehicle with barely a meter between them.

The future shifted, a new trunk leading to new branches and so forth. For every action Kwame took, the future changed. It felt as if the entire universe danced to his tune. He’d never felt anything as exhilarating. Not sex. Not drugs. Not combat. Nothing. He started laughing. “It’s glorious,” he shouted, far louder than he needed to.

“It is,” Marcus confirmed. “Time is not linear. Cause and effect are not predetermined, but a function of the sum of probabilities. Legates can see these sums and act upon them.”

“I don’t see no sums. I see the fucking future—before it happens,” Kwame shouted.

“Not quite. It’s my mind that’s translating it for you. You’re not equipped to handle Khaos. Even if you were, precognition takes years to learn, and few have ever mastered it as I have.”

“Whatever,” Kwame shouted, voice like that of a child opening presents on New Year’s Eve. “I love it!”

“Then show me how fast you can go, knowing the future,” Marcus instructed.

“Sure thing,” Kwame said, put the engine into overdrive, and dove headlong into the oncoming traffic.

“Now, we will be there on time,” Marcus told him.

“And then we kick ass?”

“And then we show them what happens to those who lift their hand against the Dragon.”

------

Kwame headed straight for Balack’s apartment, following a route that broke every traffic regulation—and would have been suicidal without Marcus’s precognitive guidance. Several times they were picked up by police patrols, but there was no way the cops could follow them without shutting down all air traffic. And maybe not even then.

They didn’t talk much. Marcus briefly explained what had happened inside the Pentacle, then both men focused on the task at hand. Kwame driving faster than was humanly possible, Marcus showing him the way.

The closer they got to Balack’s home, the more uniform the future became. Two minutes shy of the apartment block, the main branches came together in a fiery explosion. Looking forward in time, Kwame could seem them overtaking another hopper, Marcus popping the emergency releases on the door, followed by a blast of fire. Dark fire, unlike anything the security man had seen before. It writhed and heaved like it was alive and suffering horrible pains. And the flame didn’t just exist in one time. It lived in all possible futures. It was the inevitable end of all things.

“Don’t look too closely,” Marcus warned. “Men have lost their souls, gazing for too long into the Abyss.”

“Is that dragonfire?” Kwame remembered a book he’d read as a kid. Legends of the Shadow War. It had featured heroic Draconic Knights smiting their enemies with dragonfire.

“No, it’s isn’t. The Dragon hasn’t seen fit to grant us the use of his breath. What you see is witchfire—flames born of Khaos and the darkness at the bottom of the Abyss. It does the trick.”

Kwame didn’t reply. It was not the answer he’d expected.

“Bring us alongside the enemy. You know which one it is, what must be done.”

“Yes, Sir,” Kwame said and sped up even as he worked the controls to turn their hopper into a lazy roll. Ten seconds later, they were ten or so meters directly above the other vehicle, Marcus’s side pointing straight down.

“Popping the door,” Marcus called.

The sudden rush of air was deafening. It was hard to maintain control of the aircar with five hundred kilometers per hour winds trying to tear you out of your seat, but Kwame knew precisely what he had to do. He’d seen himself do it, over and over, and his confidence was unshakeable.

“Burn...” Marcus cooed.

In the corner of his eye, Kwame saw it again, the thing he’d seen in the future: a creature of shadow and fire. The abominable thing snaked out of Marcus’s mouth, slid through the open door, and swam unerringly towards the vehicle below. The Dragon Order legate kept exhaling, and the flame grew larger and larger.

The images of the future began to flicker and fade. “You should...” Kwame tried to shout, but the wind ripped the words from his mouth.

Marcus went limp and slumped against the safety harness, head violently buffeted by the airflow.

Kwame opened his real eyes and pulled back on the throttle. “By Set and Loki,” he screamed as he wrestled with unresponsive controls. A pair of aircars passed by, one on either side. Only blind luck saved them. Another close encounter before airspeed dropped enough for Kwame to be able to control the hopper again. He chanced a glance at Marcus. The legate was out cold.

“Not good, not good.” He slowed down to a crawl, spun around, tried looking for the other aircar. It was nowhere in sight. Did the fire get it? He wasn’t sure. What do I do now?

There weren’t that many options. He could stay put and hope nothing bad happened to Balack’s wife while he was taken into police custody. Or he could do something. Probably die in the process. But I gotta try. And maybe, just maybe, Marcus would wake up and save them all.

He brought the hopper around and started towards the apartment. It took him close to two minutes at his present, much-reduced speed. He expected to see police cruisers appear at any moment, but they didn’t.

He rounded a commercial sky-tower reaching up from the middle level and got a line of sight on the apartment building some five hundred meters away. It was a posh place, on level 141, above the topmost ground level of the city. It had been terribly expensive, but Balack claimed that the air and light more than made up for it. He’d done if for Imogen, of course. The old man had no use for air and sunshine. He’d preferred a place down on sub-stratum one or two. Still uptown, but nowhere near as expensive.

Kwame looked at Marcus again. Gave him a little nudge. No reaction. Prodded him harder. Still nothing. Slapped him across the cheek. Nothing. Zip. Nada. The legate was out for the duration.

“It’s up to me then,” he said to himself. “What would you have done, Marcus?”

There was no reply.

“Crash the hopper right into the apartment? Cheeky. I like it,” he said to the unconscious man next to him. “Even out cold, you’re full of surprises.”

Kwame pushed the throttle forward and angled the hopper towards level 141. That’s when he realized every apartment looked precisely the same from this distance. Even the floors burred together; there was no way to tell 141 apart from any other level. Well, fuck you too, Loki!

He considered linking up and having the computer point out the right apartment, but that meant going online. He was a wanted man now. Or the hopper was anyway. Soon as he connected to the data-grid, Police Central would assume remote control of his aircar.

He kept driving forward. “Dragon God, if you’re genuine, and this mission is as important as Marcus says, guide me,” he mumbled. No harm in trying.

At two hundred meters, he saw a black-clad stranger with a rifle of some sort, standing on one of the balconies. “The Dragon’s Will be done,” Kwame howled triumphantly and adjusted the hopper’s course.

At a hundred meters, the person turned out to be a woman with a chromed skull and multi-faceted, insectile eyes, almost like Kwame’s own. The rifle was a heavy-duty assault weapon, an oversized shotgun optimized for flechette ammo. The gun came up with alarming speed. She started shooting from the hip, a stream of flechettes rushing from the barrel straight towards Kwame.

He ducked down, but it was too late. The body of the vehicle absorbed hundreds of tiny metal arrows, but a dozen darts hit the hopper’s windscreen, shattering it, and some continued on to bore into Kwame’s right arm and side. He had no time to register any pain before they smashed onto the terrace.

The impact mangled the front of the air vehicle, but killed most of their forward speed, just as Kwame had hoped. Most, but not all. The broken hopper careened through Balack’s panoramic windows and plowed into the living room. Fortunately, nobody was sitting in the lounge area.

The impact triggered the hopper’s emergency systems: the emergency inertial nullifiers kept Kwame and Marcus from turning into bloody goo, and the shock pads prevented the deformed dashboard from crushing the vehicle’s occupants.

It still hurt like hell. Or maybe being shot was finally registering. Kwame wasn’t sure. “By the Gods,” he exclaimed when his wits returned. There was blood all over the cabin. Lots of it. Blood, mixed with other body fluids.

It wasn’t him, and after painfully turning his head, he saw it wasn’t Marcus either. The woman. He turned his head all the way around. Half of her anyway. The woman’s torso had been hammered with great force into the roof of the hopper, making it burst like a ripe fruit. Her legs—and her head—were nowhere to be seen.

“That’s what you get for lifting your hand against the Dragon, bitch.” Kwame said, and coughed. There was blood, his blood, mixed with saliva to form a pink foam. He looked some more, dreading what he might find. Some of the flechettes had penetrated the windscreen and hit him, that much was certain. Looked like a couple in the arm and a couple more in his upper chest. It hurt like hell, but he didn’t feel like he was dying. Guess the stupid cloak stopped it. He coughed again. Or most of it.

His metal eyes registered movement somewhere deeper inside the ruined apartment. Without thinking, he hit release on the security harness and dropped low. Before getting his Cerberus certificate, Kwame had been in the army, and before that, he’d been a street punk—he honestly couldn’t say which occupation was the more dangerous. Both lines of work had taught him the value cover and concealment, the need to keep mobile—and when to throw caution to the wind and go all in.

Kwame crawled over Marcus’s limp legs and exited the wreck of the hopper through the hole left by the missing door. He moved forward and peered around the edge of the hull. An energy pulse nipped at his ear, forcing Kwame back into cover. His hand went up by reflex. The ear hurt like crazy, and part of it seemed to be missing. Nothing important. Another shot rang out, hitting the hopper, sending a little shower of glowing metal droplets over Kwame. If he’d been unarmored, he would have been burned. As it were, only his hair got singed. Where the hell did I leave the helmet?

His opponent had a pulser. Marcus was out. All Kwame had a stick of metal with a pointy end, modeled after an ancient weapon used to guard the high priests of ages past. In the name of the Archon, why are we armed with halberds? Where is the fucking thing anyway? Try as he might, he couldn’t see his weapon anywhere.

“Pentacle security officer,” he screamed on a whim. “Don’t shoot. We’re on the same team.”

Another shot rang out. It cut through the frame of the hopper and bored into Kwame. It stung, but the golden armor dispersed the weakened blast.

“Knock it off, you moron,” he shouted. He was out of good ideas. This was a long shot—so long it would never work. “I’ve got Marcus Aurelian in the hopper. He used his powers on me, made me drive here, and into the building. He’s completely insane.”

There was no shot this time.

“The crash knocked him out. I’m coming out. Don’t shoot. I’m not armed. My halberd is in the back.” Truth be told, Kwame had no idea where the halberd was. Maybe it had fallen out during the crash. Didn’t matter—no way to deal with a gunman armed with a pointy stick.

Kwame closed his eyes and got up. The shooter didn’t immediately kill him; he took that as a good sign. Kwame opened his eyes. A beefy, middle-aged man in a slick business suit, in half cover behind a corner, a massive pulse pistol pointing at Kwame’s head. There was no dodging the speed-of-light beam, and the glowing cyber-eyes behind the gun promised the gunman wouldn’t miss.

“Hands behind your head. Fold ’em.” Kwame complied. “Turn around, on your knees.” The Cerberus did as he was bid. “Who the fuck are you?” the man said, never leaving his cover.

“I’m Kwame. I’m on the Pentacle staff. I’m one of those guarding the Maiden.”

“Why aren’t you in the crypt?”

“There was an incident. He got to me with some sort of shadow magic. Forced me to take off the helmet. Then he...” Kwame let his voice trail away. So far, so good, but what the hell do I do now?

“Where is the rest of the team?”

“Your team? He killed them.” Kwame really needed for the gunman to get closer. If he got within striking distance, then maybe. But not if he stayed at pistol-shot range.

“Impossible. He’s only one man.” Kwame thought he heard an intake of breath. Was the gunman’s voice a little less confident?

“He can read the future like none other,” Kwame said, words spilling quickly from his lips. “He took the two posing as cold-cloaks in the corridor. Shot them with a coilgun. Syndicate B1B.”

“Liar,” the man snapped. Kwame could hear him take an involuntary step forward. “We could barely bring a zip-gun and knives. How did he get it inside the security perimeter?”

“Inside help. After he left the chamber, someone handed him a warded coilgun.”

“Who?”

Kwame hesitated. His mind was racing, trying not to be caught in a lie. “Pisonis. A woman. She’s the chief of the Fifth and Ninth both. It was her.” It was the best he could come up with—the only thing, in fact. I’m so dead.

“Liar!” Marcus could hear footsteps. Fear mingled with hope. They stopped two meters shy of him. Not quite close enough to make a move. “She’s our plant. Our double agent. She wouldn’t help Marcus.”

“You can ask him when he wakes up,” Kwame nodded his head, as much as he was able with his hands folded on top of it, towards the wreck. “But I’m sure. She’s old, but a damn fine woman. Balack and I have talked about her a lot. He told this story about one time he did her in handcuffs...gets cold and lonely in the crypt.” He held his breath. Just a little closer...

“What about the boss and the XO?”

“The ginger and some woman?”

“Yeah, those.” The suit’s voice was dry and cracked, but he didn’t come any closer.

“He burned them.”

“What?”

“They disengaged, but we followed them here. That fucker did something to my head, so I could see the future. Made me drive so fast you wouldn’t believe it. It was glorious.”

“You said they burned. How?”

“He just popped the cabin door and vomited up something made of shadow and fire. It sort of swam over, and the whole thing went up in flames. Not two minutes before crashing this party.”

“I see. Thanks for the info. Goodbye.”

Before Kwame could react, a gunshot rang out. Something warm and wet splattered against the back of his head. He could smell gunsmoke. That was no pulser. Something substantial thudded into the floor behind him. I know that sound: flesh hitting the deck.

He turned his head a little, afraid of the shot that might still come. Imogen was standing in the back of the living room, an archaic revolver in a steady two-handed grip. Her wrists were bloody, skin torn to bloody shreds. The man in the suit was lying belly down on the floor, the back of his chromium head a bloody mess, half his face missing.

“Hi, Imogen,” Kwame said and tried to smile. “It’s me, Kwame. Don’t shoot,” he added, put his arms down, and tried to stand up. The world swayed a bit, but he was able to remain on his feet.

“What’s going on?” Imogen managed to say. Her face was a study of confusion and anxiety.

“You know, work and stuff,” he said and waved in the general direction of the hopper. “Is that a Blood Eagle?”

“Yes, Balack gave it to me as an anniversary gift,” she replied—as if they were having a normal conversation, not standing in the middle of a warzone.

“Might want to point it somewhere else,” Kwame suggested. “I like my face.” The barrel of the gun dropped. “Thank you. Oh, and Balack said to say, ‘I love you, Imogen,’ or something along those lines.”

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