Dominion, p.11
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       Dominion, p.11

           John Connolly
 

  Paul smiled at him.

  “Oh, I think I may be able to guide you to an army too.”

  CHAPTER 18

  Paul and Steven returned to the table. While they had been talking, the Cayth had done more than simply cut the Varcis’s oxygen supply: they had begun to void it from the ship, so that most of the crew were already in obvious distress, trying to breathe shallowly even as their lungs cried out for more air.

  Paul resumed his seat next to Kal.

  “I presume you were listening to us,” said Paul.

  If Kal felt at all embarrassed, then he didn’t show it.

  “We hear everything on the ship.”

  “And do you agree with my assessment of your situation?”

  “I hope that it is inaccurate, but I fear it’s true.”

  “How long can the Cayth hold out?”

  “I have already summoned the rest of the fleet. We’ll strengthen the defenses and boost the nets. A full-scale invasion might break us, but we can deal with smaller incursions.”

  “The Illyri are at war with one another,” said Paul. “That’s good news for you.”

  “They were at war,” Kal corrected him, “when you came through the wormhole. Who knows what the situation is now?”

  “I’ve never heard of a short civil war,” said Paul. “They have a habit of dragging on. Syl, how long did the last Illyri civil war go on for?”

  “Almost a hundred years.”

  “See?” said Paul to Kal. “A hundred years. I think it’s safe to say that they’re probably just getting started. Now, can you patch me into Fenuless? Let’s see if she’s in more of a mood to talk.”

  Kal indicated with his hand that the channels were open.

  “Commander Fenuless? This is Lieutenant Kerr. You and your crew seem to be in some difficulty.”

  “Our . . . oxygen,” Fenuless gasped. “The systems . . . are . . .”

  “Under our control, like everything else on your vessel. You see, I don’t really have time for your posturing. I have questions that I need answered, and so do our friends here with me. So here’s what I’m proposing: I’ll restore your oxygen, and you’ll answer our questions. The moment you cease to cooperate, I’ll let you and your crew die.”

  “You’re a . . . savage,” said Fenuless.

  “I’m Scottish,” said Paul, “so I’ve heard that one before. Are we in agreement?”

  Fenuless spluttered her assent.

  “Restore their oxygen supply,” said Paul.

  He was so focused on the image of the Varcis and her personnel that he did not notice how intently the members of his own crew were watching him. Somehow, they had gone from a situation where they were at the mercy of an unknown alien race to having their lieutenant giving orders to that same race.

  While Fenuless and her officers recovered themselves, Meia asked Kal to cut the audio again. Paul leaned toward her, curious.

  “Can you give me the previous scan, the internal one, as well?” she said.

  Kal did, superimposing one image of the Varcis on the other so that Fenuless and the others appeared semitransparent. The parasites they were carrying were clearly visible in seven of them, although Fenuless’s was bigger than the rest, and its tendrils spread more deeply through her system.

  “Interesting,” said Meia.

  “What is?”

  “Can you see the development of the Other in Fenuless? Look there, deep in the lateral tissue of her brain.”

  Meia pointed at Fenuless’s image, and the Cayth responded by lighting up the section of Fenuless’s brain beside Meia’s finger, a section separating the frontal and parietal lobes from the temporal lobe. A particularly thick tendril from the Other had embedded itself there, with smaller tendrils running from it.

  “That is the anterior insular cortex,” said Meia.

  “What does it do?” asked Syl.

  “In both humans and Illyri, it’s linked to high-level cognitive functions: error detection, language processing, self-awareness—consciousness, I suppose—but it also processes empathy. It’s the part of the brain that makes you, and those like you, compassionate.”

  “Meaning?” asked Paul.

  “The Other is clearly tied deeply to Fenuless’s consciousness,” said Meia. “They’re close, almost functioning as one. I would theorize that the distinction between them is minimal. Fenuless is the Other, and the Other is Fenuless. On a practical level, it has also probably cut off her empathic responses. Lieutenant, Fenuless is a killer, and almost certainly by choice.”

  “How can you be sure?”

  “The Other is an infection, and the brain tissue would be expected to exhibit signs of inflammation or irritation in response to its incursions. I see no such signs. The Other may well have suppressed her immune reactions, but the complexity of the connections between them indicates a mutual dependence. The Other also appears to have almost entirely enclosed Fenuless’s amygdala, the section of the brain linked to violence and psychopathy. If we assume that Fenuless’s transformation is not unique, then it would suggest a heightened capacity for ruthlessness among those members of the Corps and Securitats who have been implanted with Others.”

  “It wasn’t like the Securitats were lacking in ruthlessness to begin with,” said Steven.

  “But it’s helpful if you’re starting a war against your own people,” said Thula.

  The layout of Fenuless’s ship was slightly different from the Nomad in that the Varcis had an elevated captain’s seat behind the two pilot chairs. Fenuless was now sitting in that raised seat, the rest of her crew ranged around her.

  “Okay, let’s see what she has to say for herself,” said Paul. “Commander, I trust you’re enjoying the taste of fresh oxygen again. It does come at a price, though.”

  “Ask your questions,” said Fenuless.

  “What is your mission? And ‘to destroy’ is not an acceptable answer.”

  A game was being played, and they both knew it. Fenuless would do her best to keep as much from Paul as she could, regardless of any threat to her oxygen supply. Paul would have to infer as much from what he was not told as from what she chose to reveal.

  “We were initially ordered to be part of the assault on Melos Station,” said Fenuless. “We were redirected to follow and intercept you.”

  “On whose orders?”

  “Dyer himself, supported by the Archmage Syrene.”

  “Who’s Dyer?” Paul asked Syl.

  “I think he’s a Consul—big in the Securitats,” Syl replied. “I seem to remember hearing his name before.”

  “Consul Dyer is now President,” Fenuless confirmed. “He assumed the post when civil war broke out, because President Krake was deemed to be out of his depth.”

  “Why? Because Krake’s with the Military?” said Syl, in Illyri, addressing her question to Fenuless. President Krake had been a member of the Military, but had married a Nairene Sister named Merida. Those in the Military who distrusted the Sisterhood had warned him against it, but had been ignored, for Merida was beautiful, and Krake was as vain as he was arrogant.

  “Perhaps,” said Fenuless, “even for a politician like Krake, it must have been hard to stand back and let his former comrades die.”

  “Why not just get rid of him altogether?” asked Paul.

  “I know only that President Krake’s retention is considered necessary,” said Fenuless.

  “That sounds logical,” said Meia. “Krake’s continued presence as a figurehead, as the nominal President of Illyr, would appease the masses on the planet, particularly those Civilians who would have been more in favor of Military rule.”

  Syl sighed heavily, for her father was a Military man, or had been, but now . . . well, who knew what he was, or what he had become. She looked again at the image of the Other in Fenuless’s head, and wanted to vomit knowing such a thing dwelled within her own father. Andrus would hate such an invasion of the self, or rather the Illyri soldier that he once was would hav
e hated it. She saw Paul look her way, but she pretended not to notice, refusing to acknowledge the concern on his face. Instead, she swallowed hard, choking back the growing despair, for she knew she had to hope. They all had to hope, or they might as well just lie down right here and die.

  “And what was to happen once we were intercepted?” Paul asked the commander.

  “Is Syl Hellais with you?” responded Fenuless.

  Paul glanced at Syl again. She gave a small nod of her head.

  “Yes. It was she who spoke to you in Illyri a few seconds ago.”

  Seconds? he thought. That’s probably hours on Earth.

  “All those on board your ship were to be killed,” said Fenuless, “with one exception: the order for Syl Hellais’s destruction was conditional. We were instructed to bring her back to the Marque alive if the opportunity presented itself. If it did not, she could be terminated with the rest of you. Oh, and by the way, Lady Syl”—some of Fenuless’s natural arrogance had returned with the oxygen—“that decision met with the approval of Lord Andrus. In fact, as I understand it, he expressed no desire to see his daughter returned to him alive at all. Instead, the hand of mercy was extended by the Archmage Syrene.”

  “You’re lying,” said Syl, but her voice caught in her throat. She fell silent and simply stared intently at the image before them.

  The Other in Fenuless’s head spasmed, and the tendrils in her brain shifted minutely. Fenuless winced in pain, and clutched her temples. Syl made an unintelligible sound—it might have been a cry of effort, or even triumph—and when the Nomad crew turned to her, they saw that her face was fixed in concentration. Immediately Paul knew what she was doing; despite what Syl had said, she wanted to know the truth, so she had gone looking for it. But poking around in Fenuless’s brain was a risky move because Fenuless’s consciousness wasn’t alone in there.

  “Syl!” he said sharply, but she made no reply. “Stop it!”

  He gripped her shoulder, and she spun toward him in a rage, glaring as he shook his head.

  “Syl—” he started to say, but then he saw the desolation on her face, and a tear fell from her left eye, and he understood. Fenuless had not been lying: Syl’s father had been perfectly happy to condemn her to death.

  “What was that?” squawked Fenuless. “Who was that?”

  Paul was livid. If only Syl could have held back for a while longer. He wanted to find out what Fenuless could tell them of the plans for Earth, of the timeline for its infection. She might well have told him too. She would have enjoyed tormenting him, if she could.

  “I haven’t finished with my questions yet,” he said.

  “I don’t care about your questions!” said Fenuless. “Someone was in my head. Some—”

  She stood up in a rage. Before she could say anything else, Paul spoke.

  “But you already have something in your head, don’t you, Commander?”

  Fenuless stopped moving.

  “We can see it,” Paul continued. “The one inside your skull is big. It’s like a tumor at the top of your spine, and some of your crew are carrying its little brothers and sisters. Does it have a name, Fenuless? Is it like a pet? Or maybe you’re the pet. I bet it’s smarter than you, although that wouldn’t be hard.”

  They could see the Others’ reaction to Paul’s words. The infected Illyri on the Varcis jerked their heads in unison, as though all had been affected by the same jolt of electricity. Immediately, the Others began extending their tendrils not only deeper into their brains but throughout their entire bodies, with the exception only of Fenuless. Syl had seen this before: it was a defense mechanism. The Others were preparing to turn on their hosts. Now that their presence was known, they would destroy themselves and the Illyri rather than risk being captured and examined.

  Then Fenuless spoke her final words, but two voices came from her mouth. One was her own, but the other was like a whisper, an echo.

  “Tell the Cayth that we are coming,” she said. “The Cayth are lost. Humanity is lost.”

  Fenuless smiled.

  “All is lost.”

  In that instant, Paul knew that he had gone too far. He could see it in Fenuless’s eyes. But he still had so many questions . . .

  “Commander,” he said. “Wait! We can make a deal.”

  But it was too late. Fenuless’s mouth remained open, and tendrils emerged from between her lips, flicking at the air, spitting the first of their spores from holes at their tips. In that instant, Fenuless’s head exploded, and for a brief moment the Other was visible, an embryonic organism clinging to what was left of her brain at the top of the spinal cord, before it became lost in twists and coils. Fenuless’s remains fell to the floor as, behind it, the rest of the infected crew cried out in agony, their bodies turning to flailing masses of filament, and then to blood and clouds of spores. Within seconds the rest of those on board were on the floor too, the infection spreading rapidly through them as they ingested the spores and their bodies swelled and erupted.

  Kal opened his mouth to give an order.

  “Wait! Don’t destroy that ship,” Paul pleaded with him. “Please. We need it. We can’t help you without it.”

  Kal paused, then said one word: “Decontaminate.”

  A curtain of yellow-green light appeared in the center of the Varcis’s cabin. It separated, one field of light moving toward the bow, the other toward the stern, and as it did so it cleansed the ship of spores and Ilyri remains, like a wall of heat burning them to nothing.

  “Damn,” said Thula. “Now that was a show.”

  CHAPTER 19

  Paul could barely contain his fury. He had pushed Fenuless, goading her, and then Syl had intervened—no, interfered!—and the Other had reacted. As a consequence, they had learned almost nothing of use from the Illyri commander before she died. He left the table and stalked to the observation window. His reflected face hung among the stars. Distant suns burned in his eyes.

  Stupid girl, he thought. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

  It was Meia who talked him down, her face joining his in the glass.

  “Fenuless would not have told us anything helpful anyway,” she said. “She knew that she was not going to live, and so did the entity she carried. And at least we now have one more ship, although we will require more than that before we’re done.”

  Paul nodded, still not trusting himself to speak. How many ships, though? With Meia at his side he stared silently through the glass. He felt his heart rate begin to slow, and gradually his anger cooled as his thoughts began turning. They would need entire fleets if they were to wage war on the Illyri and their strange, parasitic allies.

  But that was not his plan.

  He pointed to the Derith wormhole.

  “We have to go back through it. We have no choice.”

  “They’ll be waiting.”

  “Talk to Kal and Fara. I don’t believe for one moment that they’re sitting out here armed only with defensive weaponry that can’t be shared.”

  “I will consult with them.”

  “My brother wants to return to Earth,” he said.

  “And you will let him go.”

  It was not a question, but he answered it anyway.

  “Yes. Someone must.”

  “But not you?”

  “I’m staying with Syl.”

  “I may have to leave you for a time.”

  Paul’s stomach lurched. He needed Meia.

  “You have somewhere better to be?” he asked.

  “I know where to find help,” she said.

  Paul thought for a moment.

  “The Mechs?”

  “If they can be convinced to fight. Their increasing pacifism was one of the reasons why the Corps sought to destroy them.”

  “I would have thought that having tens of thousands of their brothers and sisters blown to smithereens might have caused them to reconsider their position since then.”

  “The Mechs are not like you, or the Illyri.”

/>   Paul cocked an eyebrow at her, for he knew she had implanted the equivalent of a small automatic weapon in her own arm; he had seen her use it on Erebos to lethal effect.

  “Frankly, Meia, you’re not like the rest of the Mechs either. You speak of them almost as a different species, and that weapon you added in your body suggests that your feelings about pacifism may be mixed, to say the least.”

  “Which makes me ideally suited to convince them to act.”

  “It means that we’ll need a third ship before long.”

  “Well, we probably know where we can find one.”

  Now it was Meia’s turn to point to the wormhole.

  “Through there.”

  “Go and have that talk with Kal and Fara,” said Paul.

  “And you should talk to Syl.”

  Paul looked around, and noticed that Syl was no longer in the room with them.

  “Where did she go?”

  “Fara showed her to an antechamber. She wanted to be alone, but I think she might make an exception for you.”

  • • •

  Paul found Syl in a small room to the right of the observation deck. It was entirely transparent, like a glass bubble extruding from the hull of the ship, with a small, clear bench at its heart on which Syl was sitting. Entering the room made Paul feel slightly queasy. The glass was so pure, and the lighting so subdued, that it was like walking through space itself.

  Syl did not turn around to see who had entered. Maybe she already knew, thought Paul, either because of her abilities or because no one else would have dared to intrude upon her solitude. He reached out to touch her, but saw her tense. It was not what she wanted, and he withdrew his hand.

  “He gave them permission to kill me,” she said.

  “Oh, Syl. He is no longer himself, and you know that.”

  “But Fenuless was both herself and the Other. I felt it. They were two linked beings in one body, yet Fenuless was capable of independent action.”

  “Only for as long as the Other permitted it, though,” said Paul. “I think if she’d had a choice, Fenuless would not have elected to have her head torn apart, but the decision was taken out of her hands.”

 

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