Dark Omega

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Chapter 4 BEFORE THE SNAKE

Inside the security crypt, video feeds showed Marcus and the Maiden from several angles and at varying levels of zoom. One monitor was set to display heat signatures. Other screens presented environmental variables, like surface temperatures, air pressure, and illumination levels. Two additional displays, one for Marcus and one for the Maiden, listed their vital signs—heart rates, respiration, blood pressure, pupil dilation, and a host of other parameters, including psychic readings.

With his multi-faceted cyber-eyes, Kwame was able to keep track of everything. Those eyes had seen the junior officer through many scrapes, first in the dark underbellies of a dozen Coalition worlds, then on as many battlefields, before landing a job in the Pentacle’s security section. Balack had met other gutter punks with similar enhancements, but none had been as skilled as Kwame—it took a particular talent to be able to process all that information.

Highly visible enhancements, like Kwame’s eyes and Balack’s metal arms, were frowned upon by polite society. Anyone who could afford upgrades had them, but uptown models looked like the real deal. On the streets, the social stigma of modification was reversed: the more chrome, the more invasive the upgrades, the better. Balack had taken down thugs with less flesh in them than the chimaera.

The older man had not led a life of crime like Kawme had, but catching cyber-boosted crooks had forced Balack to adapt. He’d lost both arms his first year with N-squad, hacked off by a Nexus-crazed psycho with a phase blade. Rather than have them regrown, Balack had opted for a chromed, skeletal look, hoping it would improve his street cred. On rare occasions, when his wife dragged him to social events, he’d wear gloves.

“Balack?”

“Yes?” Balack layered his voice with disinterest in the vain hope that Kwame would leave him in peace.

“This Marcus fellow is a pretty cold fish.”

Balack turned to face his colleague. “He would be. He’s a Draconic legate. They’re as cold as they come. Now shut up and watch your readouts.”

“I am watching my readouts. That’s the problem. Look at Marcus’s signals. He’s not just a cool cucumber. He’s still as a rock. If he didn’t breathe ever so slowly, he might as well be a rock. Shouldn’t he be like interrogating the prisoner or something? Instead, he’s just looking into her eyes.”

“Young man, you are exaggerating. You always are. And don’t call it ‘her.’ It’s not a person. It’s a chimera, a machine.” With that, Balack meant for the conversation to be over.

“I want to take a closer look,” Kwame replied, ignoring his superior. He pushed a couple of buttons and slid his fingers across a command plate. In response, one of the drones dropped down to Marcus’s level and began preparing for a scan.

“Kwame…”

Kwame continued, reaching forward to tap the command plate one final time. Balack’s cybernetically augmented arm shot forward, quick as a snake, and grabbed Kwame’s hand in mid-air. “Don’t,” he said with real authority in his voice. “You’re not doing an active scan of a Draconic envoy. Not on a whim. Not on my watch.”

Kwame’s arm went slack. Balack’s tone brooked no argument. If the junior officer went against a direct order from a superior, he’d be finished as a Cerberus. “By your command, Sir,” Kwame replied and sank back into his seat.

A few minutes went by in silence.

“Balack…”

“Yes, Cerberus Chike Kwame, you have permission to speak,” Balack said, wishing for it to have nothing to do with the Dragon Order. The lad simply didn’t understand how dangerous they were. How much they resented any intrusion into their inviolable sphere of authority. And things being what they were…

“You know that librarian up on the top level?” Kwame said.

“What librarian? There must be hundreds, if not thousands, of them up there,” Balack said, much relieved his colleague had changed the subject.

“The pretty one. The one with the legs and a backside to die for. Long, dark hair. Dusky skin. Amaya.”

“No, I don’t. I haven’t had the pleasure of making her acquaintance.” Balack could feel his usual good mood returning, now that they were done provoking the Dragon Order.

“I have.”

“You have? Want to swap stories? I have a good one about a librarian with good hips,” Balack said, starting to think that this watch might turn out fine after all.

“Fine by me. I go first, but I want to know who you’re talking about. No uglies this time,” Kwame said, referring to a particularly harrowing story Balack had told a couple of solar cycles ago.

Balack shook his head. “Calpurnia Pisonis, the new head lady of the Ninth Tier, is not in the uglies category. She’s too old and savvy for the likes of you, but by the Children of Aphrodite, is she a fine woman.”

Kwame gave a little laugh. “You did not take Calpurnia Pisonis down Balack, no way you did—you’re too old and ugly for that.”

“So young, so inexperienced,” Balack gave a laugh of his own. “You know very little of women, Kwame. You play with girls. Now tell me about your little affair, and I’ll tell you how real men do it.”

“You’re so full of shit, Balack. Next time I see your wife, I’ll tell her.”

“Feel free. My wife doesn’t believe a word coming from that sleazy mouth of yours.”

“Imogen loves the things I do with my mouth, old man. Now sit back, let me tell you how good the good girls taste—you keep your hags.”

Balack leaned back and folded his hands in his lap. Kwame was a mediocre security officer, but he was a great storyteller. This was going to be good.

------

“I was born on the world of Akakios, in the four thousand and ninth year of the New Era. Twenty-five-fifty-nine Dominion Reckoning. Five hundred and fifty-one years since the death of the last Autarch.” Haides sipped his drink.

Two hundred and sixty-four years ago. If Haides was telling the truth, he had been born after Samael’s death and missed the Maiden’s creation. How did you end up here, as the Gatekeeper? But much as Marcus enjoyed puzzles, he had come for Samael’s secrets, not to solve mysteries. Perhaps the answer will present itself. Haides said all would be revealed. As long as it doesn’t distract me from my goal.

“The genocidal wars of the Titanomachy were a thing of the past, but times were hard, and didn’t look like they would be getting better anytime soon. Whenever somebody managed to rebuild something…someone else would come along and tear it down. Eternal twilight, that’s what it looked like. A slow, wasting death for all of us. In a display of bleak resignation, people took to calling it the ‘Twilight Millennium.’ I don’t know who came up with the term, but it stuck.” Haides paused for a moment as if to let Marcus speak.

Is he waiting for me to say something? Marcus gave him a vague smile of encouragement instead.

“Be that as it may,” Haides picked up again. “The Apex Throne had stood empty for centuries. The once-great Gaean Dominion had been split into squabbling Successor Kingdoms, large and small, with various Archons—some legitimate, others not so much—as hereditary rulers. The hegemony of the Triumvirate—the Conclave, the Technocracy, and the Collegium—was being challenged by the growing wealth and power of the nobles.”

What does this history lesson have to do with Samael? Marcus resisted the urge to interrupt the Gatekeeper, to urge him to skip forward, to provide full access to the archives. I agreed to listen to him, so listen, I will. For now, at least.

Haides made a sweeping gesture with his free hand. The darkness beyond the desk was replaced by a hundred million bright points of light, wrought into the shape of a disk of twisting firmaments cradling a central, fiery orb. Marcus recognized it readily enough. The Milky Way galaxy, as seen from a distance, high above the galactic plane.

There were the major Perseus and Centaurus arms, trailing like streamers from the bulging bars of the galactic core. Lesser arms—the Cygnus, the Sagittarius, and others—joined the stellar swirl. Marcus could make out the Orion spur, the location of Earth. The majestic panorama included the Milky Way’s satellite galaxies, with the Lesser and Greater Magellanic clouds close to Marcus’s vantage point.

“Akakios, Coalition space. More specifically, the Amalfian sector, located rimward of the Bretagne and Normandie sectors, trailing of the Dalmatian sector, right up alongside the unbeholden reaches beyond the Cygnus arm.” The view zoomed in towards the southern fringe of the galaxy.

“It was a minor world, located in an unimportant area of a distant sector, at the very edge of Dominion space, right where the authority of the Coalition battlefleets whittled away into nothingness. Beyond lies the vast uncharted regions of the Centaurus Expanse and the methuselah stars of the galactic halo. Beware the edge of the galaxy, or you might fall off. Here be aliens. Astra Incognita. That kind of remote.”

Marcus couldn’t recall having heard of a planet called Akakios, which was odd. His computer-assisted memory was practically flawless, and as far as he knew, he had memorized all Dominion worlds, past and present. Either Haides was lying—or Akakios was obscure enough to have escaped notice. Unlikely, but not impossible. We’ll see.

Haides rose from his seat, conniaco in hand, but leaving Blood lying on the desk. Death was still in the double shoulder rig. A well-worn utility belt was strapped around Haides’s waist. It held a scabbard with a short, straight blade fastened on the right side. On the left hip, hidden beneath the cloak, could be seen the contours of a slender pistol holster. It looked like a sliver gun, a more elegant projectile weapon that the brutish coilguns, or an energy-based pulser, but the angle was too bad to be sure.

“Akakios. It was the nexus of a Shadow incursion. It was so bad, in fact, that the Order and the Cloclave—and the rest of the Triumvirate—in an unusual display of cooperation, decided that it would be for the best for humanity if no one remembered the particulars of my homeworld.” Haides voice was perfectly level, with no emotional content whatsoever. “So not only was Akakios physically remote, it was thoroughly expunged from every datavault. According to official records, it never existed at all. Which is why you’ve never heard of it.”

If an Edict of Excommunication was issued, it could explain why I haven’t heard of the place. The Dragon Order would go to great lengths, not just to fight the Shadow wherever it reared its ugly heads, but also to repress knowledge of such incidents—the fewer people knew about the horrors of the Abyss, the better. The worse the incursion, the more severe the suppression of information. Including striking entire worlds and their histories from the records. Possible, but oh-so-rare.

“Akakios. The world of my birth.” Haides paused for a moment, lost in thought. “I hated my memories of the place for years. Hated them because they reminded me I had been soft and spoiled once. But most of all, I hated them because it was on Akakios the betrayals began. It was there I learned that no bond of family or friendship is strong enough to stave off the inevitable perfidies.”

Do I sense an undertone of regret in his voice? Or am I imagining things? Too faint to be sure.

“Those memories of loss and betrayal stung worse than any pain of the body or spirit later inflicted upon me.” There was more emotion in Haides’s voice now, relatively speaking. “It is not without reason that the wise counsel us against such things: frivolous joy instead of hard work, hope instead of duty, love for anyone but Gods and Archon. All signs of moral weakness.”

Is he serious? Or is he making fun of me? Marcus considered interrupting Haides. To say that he had no need to know anything about the gatekeeper’s childhood traumas. Let him talk. Time works for me. Time to observe, analyze, and understand the Maiden’s security protocols.

“But before the snake entered it, it was paradise. My paradise.” Haides dismissed the memory with a flick of his wrist.

“My family lived in a large country residence in the hills south of Thira. It took half an hour to walk to our closest neighbors. At least I remember it as being large. It was probably modest by the standards of the Akakian gentry, for my family well off, but not filthy rich.

“Janus, Jan, for short, was four years older than me. He was better than me at everything. He was always smug and superior in the way of older brothers across the galaxy. I envied him, wished I was he. He barely acknowledged my existence. When he did, I often regretted having drawn his attention.”

Hardly unusual behavior for an older brother. Marcus had three older brothers, two of whom had been decent, the third, Andreas, had been a monster.

“My sister Eleena was two—two-and-a-half actually—years my senior. She was shy and mild-mannered. And beautiful. She had the face of an angel, and her glossy black mane of hair was the envy of the girls at school. She was often lost in her own inner world.”

Marcus had never connected with any of his four sisters. Growing up, it seemed girls were lost in their own, separate world—a world of unfathomable female memes and mannerisms, filled with things Marcus was not meant to know. Except for Accalia, but she passed through the Veil before her time, murdered for no reason but the blood flowing through her veins.

“By the way, if you’d like to see what my homeworld was like, the recording includes full sensory data,” Haides said.

“I’m aware,” Marcus replied and extended a mental probe into the neural data stream. I’ll humor you, Gatekeeper. And who knows, perhaps there is something worthwhile to see.

“I spent hours wandering and exploring the hill-lands surrounding our house. It was a beautiful country, even in winter, when the Othreiya—the local brand of fierce winter storms—came screaming down from Mount Othrys.”

Images of Akakios played out before Marcus’s eyes like a string of still pictures. A country estate, built from reddish bricks and blackened timbers, nestled among heath-covered hills in full bloom. A vast azure lake, its crystal clear waters wrapped in white drifts of mist. A range of jagged, grey mountains in the distance, draped in snow. Everything was large and grand and tinged with a hint of mystery. The world, as seen by a child, before it is weaned to the unpleasant realities of life.

“I’d read a book. Not a digital one, but an old-fashioned printed volume. Father had thousands in his study and was always happy to provide more.”

Marcus got a glimpse of a young Haides with a leather-bound book in his lap. A woman’s voice called a name Marcus couldn’t make out. Haides closed the book and put it on a nearby table. ‘The Travels and Travails of Navigator Nik,’ the cover said in Archaic Dominion. A children’s adventure book. Never heard of this title. Must be a local story.

“Or watch a holo-show. Play with my toys. Some people—my brother included—needed to be with others to feel whole. I always felt best when alone.”

Marcus nearly shook his head. In his experience, the loners were damaged in some way. Granted, Marcus had become something of a loner himself—people in his line of work often were. But I don’t seek loneliness. I always maintain a healthy dose of human interaction. Well, maybe not lately, but that’s because I’ve been busy saving the universe.

“There was school, of course. Children were required to physically attend for at least ten years. Akakians took great pride in their institutions of learning. Unlike most worlds post-Titanomachy, being a wise and learned person was a source of status, not ridicule.

“From the house, we could look east towards the snowy peaks of the Mastari range, including the mighty Othrys with its sky-piercing monasteries.”

Before his inner eye, Marcus could see flint grey mountains standing tall in the east, their upper slopes draped in a blanket of snow. One peak stood higher than the rest, a jagged spire of hard rock that wind and water had tried and failed to grind down. He could see two, maybe three, man-made structures near the top of the mountain. At this distance, they looked like tiny slivers of silver reaching for the heavens, but in reality, they must be the size of starscrapers.

“We went hiking there in the autumn. Sometimes we went summer skiing, high up where the snow never melted.” Haides made a slow, snaking motion with his hand, starting at shoulder level and ending at desktop height.

Skiing? Marcus hadn’t seen that one coming. He was passingly familiar with the concept of skis—two long, narrow planks strapped to the feet—a very peculiar mode of personal transportation, used on a smattering of backward planets and a handful of civilized worlds that were locked in eternal ice ages. Never had he heard of skis being used for recreation.

“Did you ever go skiing, Marcus?”

Marcus didn’t reply. If I ignore the query, surely he’ll move on to weightier matters.

Haides waited for a reply, offering Marcus the opportunity to change his mind. Seeing that no response was forthcoming, he continued. “If you didn’t, you missed something wonderful.” Haides sounded regretful on Marcus’s behalf.

Another pause, longer this time. When Marcus still would not reply, Haides picked up again. “The rest of the family would get up before dawn and get everything ready. Eli and Mother would prepare food. Jan would put our gear in the hopper. Father would prepare the skis.”

Images from inside the house played out in Marcus’s mind. Janus was there, helping out without complaint. A tall, fit, good-looking teenager. He smiled often and warmly, and his eyes held none of Haides’s venom. Your brother seems much more agreeable than you, Haides.

“Father would pick up my still-sleeping body and strap me into the hopper. One of the few advantages of being a younger child. When finally I woke up, we would be landing on the snow, high up in the mountains. The sun would be coming out to greet us, painting the world with magic crayons.”

Marcus saw the snowy mountains, bathed in the reds and pinks of the rising sun. The sight was both majestic and oddly calming.

“I’d gulp down a quick breakfast, and then get my skis. The weather would be perfect, with minimal wind, and the sun would shine all day. We’d race down the mountain, again and again, carried back up by the hopper that came for us on auto-pilot when Father called it.”

Fleeting images of high-speed movement across vast expanses of glittering white snow. The sensation was unfamiliar but exhilarating. I could get used to this.

“At noon, we’d eat together, and we would talk and laugh, and everything would be just perfect. Afterward, Father and Jan would find a more challenging place to ski, while Mother rested, and Eli…she’d mostly just sit in the sun, soaking up its warmth like a lizard.”

Haides’s sister was quite attractive, a pale dark beauty, but a little too young for Marcus’s taste. The mother, however, he would gladly have bedded. She was a mirror image of the daughter, only older and more alluring. She reminds me of Xerza, only softer, weaker, less substantial. I really should get out more. Have a date when this is all over. I’ll ask if she’s available.

“Since I wasn’t a good enough skier to go with Father and Jan, and not inclined to just sit around doing nothing, I’d go exploring on my own, secure in the knowledge that Father would come for me when they were done.”

Haides suddenly shut up and sat back, looking not at Marcus, but through him. What now? A faint shiver passed through the telepathic link. The connection is slipping. What’s happening?

“No, I never did go summer skiing,” Marcus said, hoping a reply would strengthen the link. “I barely know what skis are. I am of noble stock, that is true, but we were not in a position to have the sort of freedom or wealth required for such pursuits. After I was handed over to the censors, there were even fewer opportunities. There isn’t a lot of skiing in the Collegium curriculum.”

Marcus was surprised at the venom in his voice. Bitterness conjured forth from dim memories. Of a family that had provided none of the warmth or love his soul had craved, and been quick to turn him in when the manifestations began. Marcus had dealt with those memories a long time ago, burning his connections to them from his mind as part of his mental conditioning. I haven’t thought about any of you for years. Why do you return to haunt me now?

The connection returned, stronger than ever.

“No? If you’d like to give it a try, the archive contains a full recording of one of my exploration trips. It was quite eventful,” Haides said, putting emphasis on the last word.

“I’ll pass,” Marcus replied, mixing finality with politeness.

Haides raised one eyebrow a hair’s breadth. “You can pull it up any time you like. It’s part of the first circle archives, so you’re authorized to access it.”

“Not interested,” Marcus said with even greater finality—and far less politeness. “I’m here for a reason. Skiing isn’t part of it. Not now. And certainly not later.”

“Suit yourself. Though you will come to regret that decision.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“Father was the chief executive for a local manufacturing conglomerate. Every weekday he would get up early in the morning go to the plant outside Thira. Enjoyed it a bit too much, perhaps, for he would not always come home for supper. Many weekends he would either go to work for a few hours, or he would retreat to the study and do some paperwork from there.”

Or perhaps he had a woman in town? Even men with beautiful wives can be unfaithful. A petite blonde to contrast his own wife? Or a shapely brunette that reminded him of his spouse, yet provided the fire his marriage lacked?

Haides rose from his seat, put down his class, picked up the decanter, and proceeded to fill up his own glass before topping off Marcus’s crystal goblet. “I know Mother felt he was away too much,” he said, waving the decanter in a noncommittal fashion. “I’m sure we missed him, but we were used to it.” Haides returned to his seat, sat down, and cradled his glass. “What we never got used to was the wordless grief Mother tried to hide from us. The tearless crying. The dark around her eyes from staring sleeplessly into the night. The crimson lines on ivory arms.”

Marcus saw her clearly, sitting by the window, peering into the night. Her eyes were dark pits, giving Marcus a glimpse of the darkness gnawing at her soul: she was a latent, an untrained legate, and a troubled one at that. I thought as much. The sister too, I guess. Jan, I think not. The father…I’m not sure, he’s hard to pin down. Marcus had tried to get a good look at Haides’s father but without luck. He was always out of focus, coming and going, one moment there, gone the next.

“It got worse over the years. By the time I was ten, it was a constant presence. We children could feel the unease building, and eventually, Father would leave the house. That only made Mother worse. She needed him for his strength and calm. He was her anchor. Without him, she was a leaf caught in the storm.”

Haides had another big sip of conniaco. “But love cannot make a broken mind hale, cannot make wicked witches into chaste maidens. When Father finally realized he could not save Mother or heal her, he took refuge in his work. Work became his anchor when he no longer had the strength to be Mother’s.”

Marcus was sure now that Haides was a recording of a real person—a psychic shadow. He’s too complex, too detailed to be a mere construct. No one could have stitched something like that together. Not without a single hole or frayed edge showing.

Someone—other than Samael, since he was already dead at the time—had made a psychic copy of Haides, stuck him inside the archives, and made him the Maiden’s primary line of defense against unsanctioned access. Literally a ghost inside the machine. Not how I would have chosen to arrange for security, but here we are.

“Quite perceptive for a kid, don’t you think?” Haides said without waiting for an answer. “In hindsight, it’s tempting to blame my latent psychic abilities, but the answer is more mundane: children are wary of moods, their minds so perceptive. Children are also quick to take after one another, so whatever my elder siblings picked up, they passed on to me. My brother was fifteen, but my sister at thirteen was far more mature than he. Besides, she sat around the house a lot more, and as it turned out, she was a psychic too.” Haides paused to give Marcus time to digest the news.

A family of latents. How did they escape the attention of the Conclave, of the Censors? Akakios—if it existed—appears different from other worlds.

“We knew, collectively, that something was not right. And then we proceeded, collectively, to pretend nothing was amiss, for the truth was too hard to bear. Pretending is another thing children are good at.”

“What became of your family? I gather there was a purge of this world, this Akakios. Did they die? Were they taken?”

A twisted parody of a smile graced Haides’s lips. “I never went summer skiing again.”

The statement was laced with hidden meanings, a not-so-subtle attempt to bait Marcus into looking up the recording of the ski trip. Not happening.

Haides leaned back, letting exquisite leather upholstery support his armored back. He had a sip of conniaco, letting the liquor linger in his mouth before swallowing. “That summer, when I was still ten, almost eleven—my birthday was in the autumn—was the last time.” A shadow seemed to fall across his face. “Father was away a lot, and Mother was…not well. Jan took after Father by staying out often and late. Eli took after Mother, sitting in her room, staring at nothing.” Haides had another contemplative sip. “I didn’t mind too much, to me it was just more of the same old. It was summer, and school was out. We had a new puppy that father had brought with him from Thira one day.”

There was a minute shift in Haides’ aura, a flicker of color that lasted but a moment. He became attached to the beast.

“It was Jan’s pup really, but after the first few weeks, he got bored with it. So it fell to me look after him. We called him Nik after Nikolaos, the mythical helmsman who had steered the great ark-ship Absalom across the void to found a human colony on Akakios. According to our legends, the journey had been long and arduous, hexed with bad luck, and assailed by nefarious forces.”

“This settlement myth, it predates the Dominion, yes?”

“Indeed, it does. By many years. Nik led his people away from evil, to build a new home on Akakios, the Place of Goodness.”

Marcus had not been idle. While Haides talked and talked, he’d been busy probing the Maiden’s archives. He believed he’d figured out some of its underlying functionality. Here goes.

“Could you elaborate on the history and culture of Akakios? I’m well versed in astrocartography, but I remember no mention of this ‘place of goodness.’ The Edict of Excommunication seems to have left a gap in my education.”

Haides nodded. “I can understand your confusion. It’s a convoluted tale. Elaboration can be arranged, but I have someone better suited to the task than myself. Allow me to introduce one of my associates: Vern.”

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