Dominion, p.12
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       Dominion, p.12

           John Connolly
 
Syl winced, and Paul realized perhaps he was being too brutal. After all, if the Others could burst Fenuless’s head like a balloon pricked from within, then clearly the same could happen to Syl’s father.

  He tried again.

  “The Corps allowed themselves to be infected by these things, and now they’re at the mercy of them,” he said. “I’m so sorry, Syl—this may not be what you want to hear, but I think the one that invaded your father probably removed all trace of what he was, all that was good and noble about him, as quickly as it could. Whoever consented to the order to have you killed, it was not Andrus. It might have looked like him, and sounded like him, but it was the Other speaking.”

  Now she raised her hand, searching for him, and he took it.

  “I hoped that there might be something of him left,” she said. “I still hope so, despite everything.”

  “We’ll find him,” said Paul.

  “Yes, we will. And Paul?”

  She stared up at him, and her hand tightened its grip on his.

  “If I sense that my father is beyond rescue, I will put him out of his misery.”

  • • •

  Fara and Kal were waiting for them when they returned to the main chamber. Paul was conscious of the moments slipping by. How much time had passed beyond the Derith wormhole just during his minutes with Syl? Hours? If so, how many? He tried not to think about it, just as he tried not to be afraid of what was waiting for them at the other side, or to worry about the prospect of Thula behind the controls of an Illyri ship, like a teenager without a license. Sometimes you just had to make do with what you had.

  In a way, he could understand the reasoning of the Cayth. Even if what they were saying about their fear of contagion were not true, it would still have been tempting for them to stay quietly in their corner of the universe rather than risk confronting the Others and the Illyri. Maybe if they stayed silent enough for long enough, they wouldn’t be noticed. It was cowardice of a kind, but not unreasonable.

  Meia was standing beside Fara, directing her questions quietly at Kal. Paul saw how the Cayth female repeatedly glanced toward Syl, seemingly distracted by her presence. There was pity in her face, and what might almost have been love. Paul wondered if, in building an image based on Syl’s emotional attachment to her mother, Fara might not also have picked up some of those actual emotions herself. He hadn’t been given a chance to ask Syl about it, to find out how she felt about this alien reconstruction so like a mother she had never known. He figured that she had enough troubles at the moment dealing with her feelings about her father. It didn’t seem like a good idea to scratch afresh at the wound of her mother as well.

  Yet he saw something else in Fara too, something less noble, less pleasant. Something . . . alien. That was the only word he could think of. Alien. Unknowable. He didn’t entirely trust the Cayth—he didn’t know much about them, so he would have been a fool to take them at their word—but he needed them, and he had to keep them sweet. Without the Cayth’s goodwill, he and the others would not be permitted to leave through the wormhole, and without the Cayth’s technology they probably wouldn’t last long once they emerged at the other end.

  But Fara continued to trouble him.

  He had no more time to consider the problem. Meia turned from her conversation with Kal and approached Paul once more.

  “The Cayth have weapons,” she said, “versions of what they used to trap both us and the Illyri. They’re essentially torpedoes. With a little adaptation, they can be launched from the weapons systems on the Nomad and the Varcis, but it means that we’ll have to come out of the wormhole fighting. We emerge, we fire the torpedoes, and we keep maneuvering fast in the hope that we can avoid being hit while the Cayth weaponry does its work.”

  Two ships, thought Paul, which meant that they could fire only four torpedoes. If more than four vessels were waiting for them at the other side of the wormhole, or one of the torpedoes malfunctioned, missed its target, or was destroyed, it would leave a ten-second delay while the tubes automatically reloaded. In a close fight, ten seconds was an eternity. They’d have to rely on the guns alone, and guns would be of minimal use against a cruiser or a destroyer.

  And what if the Cayth engaged in an act of sabotage, deliberately supplying them with weapons that didn’t work, or self-destructed? After all, those on the Nomad were the only beings in the universe who could now say with certainty that the Cayth were hiding behind the Derith wormhole. It might be better for the Cayth if Paul and his little band of fighters died rather than risk their being captured and sharing the truth with the Illyri and the Others.

  But Paul brushed that fear away as paranoia. If the Cayth wanted them dead, they could have killed them long before now. The Nomad’s crew already had enough enemies. He didn’t need to add to their number by conjuring up specters from the Cayth.

  “How long to make the adaptations?” he asked.

  “I’m sorry, Paul, but it will take a number of hours,” said Meia. “It depends on what we’re actually given. Alis can work on the Nomad while I take care of the Varcis.”

  “All right, let’s do it. Get started please, Meia. And let me know the moment you’re done. And also, let’s make sure Steven has some of our stash of unlocked pulsers, just in case.”

  But please, please, don’t let it come to that, he thought to himself, glancing at his little brother, who still looked so young despite the shadow of a mustache on his lip. Soon he’d need to shave every day, and the idea of it made Paul feel curiously depressed. Steven had never had a childhood, and he was fast becoming a man.

  “Steven, Rizzo, Thula, Syl: come with me, please,” he said crisply. “I need to talk with you back on the Nomad.”

  “With your permission, I’d like to stay with Fara for a little while,” said Syl.

  Paul wished that he could read her thoughts.

  “You’re sure?”

  “Yes.”

  Fara appeared pleased. Paul didn’t like that at all. He could, of course, order Syl to come with him. She had given him that option by asking for his permission. He didn’t want to do that, though. He had to assume that Syl knew what she was doing. And if she did get into trouble, she’d let him know—he could be sure of that. The only problem was that he wasn’t certain how much he could do to help her if that situation arose. Then again, he’d watched Syl force a Sisterhood assassin to burn herself alive simply through force of will, and that was before her powers began to increase. God alone knew what she was capable of now. When it came down to it, Syl was probably more than able to take care of herself.

  “Okay,” he said. “Be as quick as you can, then I’d like you back on the Nomad.”

  “Yes, sir.” Syl smirked at him, and clicked her heels smartly together. She even gave him a salute. He’d have a word with her about that when they were alone, the minx, although he already knew it would make no difference.

  The Varcis was growing larger in the window of the observation bay. The Cayth were drawing it to their ship so that Meia could begin work on it.

  Please don’t let there be more than four ships beyond Derith, he prayed. Please let this work.

  He saw Fara approach Syl, and place a hand upon her shoulder.

  Please make sure that Syl knows what she’s doing, he added to his prayer.

  Then, for good measure: And please make sure that I know what I’m doing too.

  CHAPTER 20

  Kal was gone, melting like hot wax into the floor of the ship. Only Syl and Fara remained. The dimensions of the observation deck altered. The ceiling grew lower, the walls moved in. The lighting became more subdued. The effect was not threatening, merely intimate. Fara and Syl sat across from each other in chairs that molded themselves around their forms, cradling them snugly and securely. It would be easy to fall asleep in them, Syl thought. All the more reason not to.

  Perhaps it was the dimness, but to Syl, Fara seemed more like the Lady Orianne than before. No, it was not the light; Fara had sub
tly changed once again. Her eyes were different, her jaw slightly less pronounced. She was now Syl’s mother come to life.

  Syl understood that this was, at least in part, her doing. She was feeding strands of her memory to Fara, snapshots of her mother taken from the video images of the late Orianne that she had watched throughout her life, her only connection to this lost figure, both so familiar to, and yet so distant from, herself. And Fara was acting on them, using them in an effort to bring Syl closer to her. All this Syl knew, just as she knew that the changes to Fara were not merely superficial. There was now a distinction between Fara and the Cayth. The collective was still part of Fara, but Fara was no longer entirely a part of the collective. That was the trouble with memories, Syl thought: they gave life to the dead, and allowed them to make demands upon the living.

  “Would you like something to eat or drink, my dear?” asked Fara.

  “No, thank you.”

  “I am sorry about your father.”

  “As am I.”

  “You loved him.”

  “Of course. I still do.”

  “Despite what he has done?”

  “The being that sanctioned my death is not my father.”

  Syl’s hands were clasped on her lap. Fara reached across the space between them and laid her own hand gently upon them.

  “And yet it is.”

  Syl looked at Fara’s hand. It felt a little too warm. She was still adjusting to the unfamiliarity of physicality.

  “Ask me,” said Syl.

  Fara withdrew her hand in surprise.

  “Ask what?” she replied, but there was falsity to her tone.

  “You want me to stay.”

  Fara’s mouth moved silently as she tried to find a response that would satisfy.

  “We want you to stay,” she said at last.

  Syl permitted a part of her consciousness to probe her surroundings. She was getting better at it with every hour that went by. Before, it had been one thing or the other: she could either be present or absent. Now she could allow just a fragment of herself to float free. It was like being able to hold two melodies in her head simultaneously.

  She could feel the Cayth around her, and could hear their constant quiet buzz. They were listening, curious but not involved. Syl’s powers interested them, but only to the degree that they might be used against the Others, just as Kal had intimated. They wished to know more about her and her capabilities, but Syl also detected puzzlement, and it was directed not at her but at Fara.

  “Why?” asked Syl. “Why do you want me to stay?”

  “We wish to learn more about you. There are similarities between you and us. Your sensitivities are not unfamiliar.”

  “No,” said Syl, “why do you want me to stay?”

  There it was again, that faint jolt; her question had provoked a reaction in the collective of the Cayth, because they were all one, and they knew the answer. They waited to see if Fara would reveal more of her former self, the individual that had long been submerged in the sea of the collective. The buzzing increased, and Syl listened, separating the parts from the whole, as images began to form in her own mind. The Cayth opened themselves to her, and she felt herself opening up too, like a forgotten flower placed beneath a warm sun. She leaned backward, turning her face upward, drinking it all in. With a delicious shiver, she allowed her thoughts to continue expanding outward until her mind became as clear and free-flowing as water, trickling freely into secret places, her consciousness and the Cayth’s becoming one. It was here, tangled in her own truth, that she discovered the Cayth female’s ancient hurt, and she understood.

  Oh, Fara, she thought, and her whole being filled with sadness.

  “We—” Fara began. “I—”

  “What was her name?” Syl asked gently.

  “Her name?”

  “The name of your dead child.”

  Fara turned to the glass and the stars beyond it, as though the word that she sought might be written among them, or the child she had lost might be found there.

  “Elea,” she said. “Her name was Elea.”

  And Fara opened herself to Syl, engulfing her in a wave of love and loss. Syl saw a little huddled thing, a blur, barely a mound, breathing its last, and heard a cry of grief that was beyond consolation, the echo of which had lingered even until now, hidden only by the babble of the collective. The clear water still lapped in her mind, like all the tears ever shed in the universe, and she found her cheeks were wet with them.

  “You were one of the first to give up your physical being,” said Syl. Through Fara, she watched a body fall away as form was shed by consciousness. The creation of the collective had begun.

  “Yes.”

  “Because you could not endure the pain any longer, and you thought that by abandoning your body, and surrendering your individuality, you might rid yourself of it.”

  Fara’s face in the glass was a mask of desolation.

  “I thought that if there was no ‘I,’ there would be no ‘her,’ ” she murmured. “I chose to forget because the memory of losing her was too much to bear. I could not be a mother because I had no child, and I decided instead to become one voice among many, so that my single drop of pain might be consumed by an ocean of consciousness.”

  The features on her face softened, went hazy, as though seen through narrowed eyes.

  “And I did forget, or perhaps I simply chose to do so, until you came. I felt your loss from the moment we became aware of you, and it called to my own, and woke my memories. We sent Kal, and I followed with him.”

  Now it was Syl’s turn to reach out to Fara. She rose from her chair, and put her arms around her. She closed her eyes, and Fara closed hers, and for a time they gave themselves up to a beautiful illusion in which one was the mother of a living child, and the other a daughter in her mother’s arms. And when, by unspoken consent, they broke the embrace, each was stronger for what they had shared.

  The universe is cold, and life is harsh.

  We take comfort where we can.

  • • •

  “Paul?”

  Meia’s voice came over his coms link. Paul stepped away from the weapons console of the Nomad, where Rizzo was supervising the reset while Alis was fitting the first of the torpedoes into place.

  “I hear you, Meia.”

  “We have a problem . . .”

  • • •

  Paul and Meia stared into the exposed interior of the Varcis’s main command console. A smell of burning plastic emerged from the tangle of wires and circuitry.

  “So essentially, they booby-trapped it,” said Paul.

  “Fenuless knew that even if she and her crew were permitted to live, it was unlikely that they would be allowed to leave,” said Meia. “She didn’t want anyone taking her ship, so her last act was to fry the wiring.”

  Meia held up a small wireless signaling device.

  “She must have had it in her hand when she was talking to you. As soon as the Other in her head began to react, she activated the mechanism. It didn’t destroy the console completely, but it’s done enough damage to delay any departure in this ship.”

  “How much of a delay?”

  “Many hours.”

  “But you can repair it?”

  “I’ll have to scavenge from nonessential systems but, yes, I can repair it.”

  Paul sighed.

  “Keep me posted on progress,” he said. “I need to go and speak to my brother.”

  • • •

  Steven reacted just as Paul had anticipated.

  “No! No way!” he shouted. “We’ve waited long enough.”

  They were in the captain’s cabin on the Nomad. Paul thought that it might give them some privacy, but it had hardly been worth the effort now that Steven was barking at the top of his voice.

  “Steve, if you’d just let me finish,” said Paul loudly, but Steven was having none of it.

  “Why should I bother?” he shouted. “You’re just goi
ng to order to me to stay here while the repairs are done.”

  Steven made inverted commas with his fingers when he said “order,” and Paul resisted the urge to bend those fingers back to hurt him, just as he would have done in their shared bedroom in Edinburgh. Instead, he perched on the edge of the cabin’s small desk, sat on his hands, and tried to remain patient.

  “Stevie,” he said again, “bruv . . .” but his brother cut across him.

  “Don’t you dare baby me, Paul! Not here, not after everything. I’m not a bleedin’ kid! But that’s how this is going to end, isn’t it: with you pulling rank? That’s how it always ends these days. Right, Lieutenant?”

  “Actually, that’s not what I’m going to do at all,” Paul replied.

  Steven appeared confused. “What?”

  “I’m going to give you the choice—you, Rizzo, and Alis. You can choose to stay and wait until the Varcis is ready to boost through the wormhole alongside the Nomad, or you can go through it alone.”

  “Seriously?”

  “It’s not what I want, not in an ideal world, but we haven’t lived in an ideal world in a very long time,” Paul explained. “It’s a calculated risk. I don’t think the Corps will have left a fleet sitting on the doorstep of the Derith wormhole, not while it’s engaged in a war with the Military. Nothing that the Illyri have sent through the wormhole has ever returned, and even if they have suspicions, they’ve no actual proof. Already years have gone by for them, and the Nomad has shown no sign of returning. Neither has the Varcis. So I’m guessing that there’s one vessel out there, or two at most, with bored crews who won’t be prepared for a fight. With the Cayth’s weaponry at Rizzo’s command, and you and Alis at the controls, no sleepy Illyri are going to stand a chance.”

  He sounded more confident than he felt.

  “But like I said, I’m not ordering you to stay or go. You’ll be in command of the Nomad whatever happens, because the rest of us will be in the Varcis. Rizzo and Alis will be your crew, but I think you should make sure that they’re prepared to go with you willingly. Talk to them, and come back to me once you’ve all reached a decision. I’ll wait for you here.”

 
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