Dominion, p.13
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       Dominion, p.13

           John Connolly
 

  Steven stared dumbly at his brother, but did not move. Paul was pleased to see that he still had the capacity to surprise his younger sibling.

  “I didn’t say that I’d wait forever,” said Paul.

  Steven snapped out of his daze.

  “Okay,” he said, “and thank you.”

  “For sending you through a wormhole to face an unknown force alone, then leaving you to somehow make your way to what may be a home planet overrun by the Others?”

  “Yes,” said Steven. He grinned.

  “Then you’re welcome,” said Paul. “Go. Talk to your crew.”

  Steven left. Paul remained where he was. He knew that he was putting his brother, along with Rizzo and Alis, in mortal peril. It didn’t matter if that was what they wanted: the risk remained. Most of all, for the first time that he could remember, he would be sending Steven off without the protection of his big brother. Yes, it would have happened eventually. Even if they’d gone through the wormhole together, their paths would have diverged not long after. The moment had just come sooner than anticipated, but then it would always have come sooner than expected. It would never be the right time to send Steven off alone, to release him from his brother’s guardianship. Paul’s guts tightened, and he felt sick about what was about to happen. He thought of their mother. If she was alive, Steven would find her, or die in the effort, and that was what worried Paul most of all.

  Steven bounded back in, eager as a puppy. Rizzo and Alis were behind him, smiling, and the Mech was wiping her hands with a rag.

  “The torpedoes are in place,” said Alis.

  “And the systems check showed no glitches,” Rizzo added. “They’ll fire when I press the button.”

  “We’re ready to go,” said Steven. “All of us.”

  Paul went through the plan with them three times. It would mean another delay before Steven could start the trek back to Earth, but he understood the reasoning behind it, and he made no argument. Thula had been assigned to assist Meia on the Varcis, but Paul summoned them both back to the Nomad for the final briefing. When they returned, Syl was with them. She looked like she’d been crying, but Paul had only a second to check that she was okay. She kissed him quickly on the cheek.

  “I’m fine,” she said. “And you don’t have to worry about me, or the Cayth. They mean us no harm.”

  It was the reassurance that Paul needed. If Syl said it, then it was true. For the fourth and last time, he detailed the mission that the Nomad was about to undertake.

  “How will we rendezvous?” asked Thula. “The universe is a big place, in case no one else has noticed.”

  It was a good point, Paul knew, but right now he was also concerned with how they would find out if the Nomad had even made it past any sentinel ships on the other side of the wormhole. He didn’t want the Varcis to emerge into the wreckage of the Nomad, and only then discover the fate of his brother and his crew.

  “A message in a bottle,” said Rizzo.

  “What?”

  “We know what this Cayth weaponry does,” she said, grinning. “It immobilizes a ship, then kills its crew. If everything goes according to plan, we’ll have at least one more empty vessel. We board it, set the autopilot, and send it through the wormhole emitting a simple signal. That way you’ll know we’re alive.”

  “Excellent, Rizzo! And we’ll have access to the ship’s records,” added Meia, and she was smiling too. Paul couldn’t remember if he’d ever seen her smile properly before, but it made her appear terribly childlike and sweet, even though she was neither of those things.

  “We may be able to find out how the war has been going while we’ve been away,” Meia added.

  “Nice thinking, Rizzo,” said Paul. “Let’s do it.”

  “It still doesn’t answer the question of a rendezvous point,” said Thula.

  “One moment,” said Meia.

  A series of maps began to flash before them, images of star systems both familiar and unfamiliar. It was the Mech who had called them up: they could see her controlling the images with the movements of her eyes. They waited until she found the one that she was seeking.

  “Here,” she said.

  Paul saw the name of the remote galaxy: Tessel. He called up the wormhole map and overlaid it on Meia’s. There was a wormhole in the adjoining system.

  “Why there?” he asked.

  “Because that’s where I must go,” said Meia.

  “The Mechs,” said Paul. Now he understood.

  “The refuge lies in the Tessel system,” Meia confirmed, although Paul noticed that she was careful not to say where exactly in the system it might be. Tessel was huge. Lifetimes could be spent scouring it, and still only a tiny fraction of its worlds might be explored.

  Meia pointed at a small planet in the corner of the system. It lit up like a Christmas tree light, and its coordinates appeared alongside it.

  “This world is uninhabited, and uninhabitable,” she said. “Its atmosphere is toxic, and its surface is obscured by gas clouds.”

  “Sounds great,” said Thula. “Let’s buy it and move there.”

  Meia ignored him.

  “A whole fleet could be waiting in those clouds, and no one would know,” she continued. “Let the Nomad, and whoever else it may bring with it, rendezvous with me there.”

  “When should I get there?” asked Steven. “Months from now?”

  Meia shook her head. “Longer, much longer. We need to get that ship going. It’ll take me hours. At max, another day here—that’ll be a year on your side.”

  “So a whole year?” Steven swallowed.

  “Yes, and then I need to get where I’m going. Give me fourteen months. At least.”

  “Jesus wept,” said Steven, looking a bit ill.

  “And the rest of us?” asked Paul. Syl and Thula—his tiny crew—were gathered closely behind him.

  Meia’s face could be so expressive, he thought; she didn’t even try to hide her sadness.

  “I think you three will follow your own path,” she said. “And it will lead you back to the Marque.”

  PART V

  SURVIVORS

  CHAPTER 21

  Trask—onetime reptile keeper at Edinburgh Zoo, occasional burglar, and former leader of the Edinburgh Resistance—moved through the dead town, his body shifting with the machine pistol he held, letting its muzzle lead. It was a community that he’d never known when people still lived in it. He only stalked its nighttime shadows now that it was deserted, now that all who’d once strolled this very street laden with shopping bags, or walking dogs, or heading off to post letters, were long gone.

  Behind him, to his right and left, crept two similar shapes, encased, like Trask, in protective clothing, oxygen tanks strapped to their backs. A fourth figure brought up the rear, its attention focused behind them.

  Keeping to their diamond formation, they scanned the abandoned cottages and stores for signs of movement in the bright moonlight. They wore heavy boots that extended to their knees, and black pads of hard plastic on their shoulders and elbows. They had learned from bitter experience that these were vulnerable spots, prone to snagging on nails or bits of masonry as they scavenged. All it took was one tear. Just one.

  The suits limited visibility, and the sound of their own breathing made it hard to hear anything else, even with the addition of external microphones that fed into their earpieces. Nobody liked the suits, but dying seemed like a less preferable option.

  This was as far east as they had yet ranged, and they had encountered no other survivors for a long time. The dawn chorus commenced, the sweet song of a blackbird, the earliest riser of them all, soon followed by the robin. The birds hadn’t been taken. Neither had any insects or bugs, or the littlest of mammals and rodents. It had been suggested that their brains were too small, but that made no sense. The Others were able to wrap themselves around the brain stems of anything that walked, swam, flew, or crawled on the surface of the earth, so the size of a creature’
s brain made no difference. No, the Others only needed warm flesh in which to implant themselves, and after that the host was guaranteed an unpleasant death, the spores multiplying in its body until it eventually burst open, giving birth to more spores in an explosion of blood and bone. They’d seen it happen. They’d all left loved ones to die in that way.

  And yet still the birds and bugs thrived, and they weren’t entirely alone: Trask and his people had seen rabbits and mice, even stoats and the occasional feral cat. Once, in the weeks immediately after the infestation, during the early sorties, Trask had glimpsed a horse running across the Burren, silhouetted against the evening sky like a piece of animation. He had gone after it, followed by Davy, one of his fellow survivors, but when they reached the hill on which he had seen it, the horse was gone, and Davy was convinced that Trask had imagined it. But he hadn’t. He knew that he hadn’t. He also knew that it was probably dead now. Most of the larger mammals were. But it was impossible to know whether the other animals had simply been lucky, and avoided or resisted infection, or if they contained dormant spores within them, waiting for the right moment to multiply. For now, Trask was just glad that anything at all had survived, whatever the reason.

  Gradually, as the sky turned a deep cool blue, more birds began to sing, wrens, thrushes, and finches adding their voices to the chorus. Winter had culled them, so there were fewer than in the past, but soon they’d begin breeding again. They seemed to be adapting well to the new ecosystem, just like the insects. It was a pity that the same couldn’t be said for what remained of the planet’s most evolved life-form, his own.

  It was the bigger birds—the crows, the ravens, the seagulls—that you had to watch out for. They were scavengers, just like Trask and his kind, and smart with it.

  And as for the rats . . .

  “Trask.” It was Dolan’s voice in his earpiece.

  “Yes?”

  “I thought I saw something move in that house to your left, the one with the green walls.”

  Trask paused at the glassless window of a cottage. Dolan was right. There were signs of movement inside. He slipped his finger under the trigger guard, hit the flashlight that hung beneath the barrel of the machine pistol, and directed the beam into the cottage for a moment before recoiling in disgust. The floors and walls were alive with lazy, black flies, still sluggish in the cool air, but their buzzing was like static in his ears. In the center of the room, between an old couch and a television, lay a body. It was in an advanced state of decay, and crawling with maggots, but Trask could still see the great hole that had been ripped in it from belly to neck by the emergence of the spores. It looked like a man. Trask felt a terrible sadness. Someone had survived out here for a while, even without protective clothing, but his luck had run out in the end. The chances were better out on the coast, and that was where they’d found the most survivors.

  But that was in the early days. It had been many months since they’d come across anyone left alive.

  “Flies,” reported Trask, “and a body.”

  “Recent?” asked Dolan.

  “Recent enough for maggots.”

  “Poor sod.”

  “Hey, look up,” said a female voice, and Trask recognized the tones of his older daughter, Nessa. She was bringing up the rear of the formation. “There, over to the southwest.”

  It didn’t take Trask long to find it. They were all used to them by now. The sky was clear, marred only by wisps of stratus, and against it moved a small silver speck. They’d come to realize that three different Illyri ships still orbited Earth: a cruiser, a destroyer, and one of the big transporters that had brought the Others to this world. Earlier, when the infection commenced, there had been more, many more, but they were all gone now. After all, there was no need to police a dying world, and the Others would eventually account for the last of humanity.

  The silver dot spotted by Nessa was lost briefly behind a strand of cloud. Trask didn’t know why these ships still bothered to hang around. It wasn’t as if what was left of mankind could go anywhere, or even take potshots at the orbiting craft. Briefly, there had been a sliver of hope, for a secret advanced missile base had remained intact and undiscovered in North Korea, and another in China, but the North Koreans had botched a test launch and drawn the Illyri destroyer down on themselves, and it was said over the shortwave radio that the Chinese had been sold out by the Russians, whose premier was living in a bunker somewhere in Siberia and still trying to negotiate his way off the planet. Trask found that grimly amusing; the Russian leader had sided with the Illyri from the start, hoping that the aliens wouldn’t turn on friends, but he’d been screwed over just like everybody else.

  In the first year the Illyri had regularly scattered more spores, using remote-controlled airships that flew over land at low level. When possible, the Resistance shot them down, destroying the spores in fiery explosions, but it was a risky business since an attack inevitably caused the Illyri to come looking for those responsible. The airships appeared more rarely now, and the Illyri no longer sent down hunting parties to try to winkle out survivors. Trask suspected that they had done it mostly to stave off boredom, like a kind of sport, but had eventually grown weary of it.

  Meanwhile drones, many of them equipped with snares and claws, searched for signs of movement, and when they caught stray humans they pinned them to the ground and forcibly injected them with spores. But mostly the Illyri were content to leave the work of eradicating the remnants of humanity to the Others alone.

  Well, not quite alone. That was why Trask and his team were all armed. It wasn’t just to fight off rats and seagulls. Spores weren’t the only alien entities breeding here, and the Others weren’t the only horrors hunting humanity.

  For the Cutters had come.

  CHAPTER 22

  They moved farther into the village, but found no remains as recent as the body in the cottage, and no one left alive. Once he was sure that the area was clear, and the streets had not been mined by the Illyri—another little gift from the drones, which dropped miniature explosive devices that drilled themselves into the ground, and were activated by the vibrations of motorized vehicles—Trask contacted the drivers of the jeep and truck waiting on the outskirts, giving them the all clear to advance.

  The truck had broken down on the road and it took three hours to repair. It was a credit to Burgess, the mechanic, that he’d managed to get it up and running again, but the delay meant that they would be forced to work in early morning light. They could have waited until dark came again, but Trask was prepared to take the chance on using daylight to complete their tasks. They’d work, then hole up. Once night fell, they’d be ready to move again.

  Now the scavenging could begin. Apart from tinned food and medical supplies, petrol and diesel were the main requirements. They were almost down to the last of their reserves, and without fuel they couldn’t range, or transport anything too heavy to be moved in a handcart. The risks of using the roads were outweighed by the benefits, and Trask was also determined to continue searching for more survivors. In the early days, they’d picked up communications from Dublin, Cork, and Limerick, where people had made it to Civil Defence bunkers before the spores could get to them, but the Illyri had information on the location of many such refuges, and patrols had been sent down to target them. The Illyri didn’t bother trying to break into the bunkers. It was simpler just to drill holes in the doors and pump spores into the chambers.

  It still amazed Trask that the Illyri hadn’t come knocking on the doors of their own bunker, as they had on most of the ones in England and Scotland. Fremd thought that Meia had probably erased the records of the Irish bunker, along with a handful of others, before leaving Earth. Then again, it might simply not have struck the Illyri that humans could have discovered this old refuge, or found a way through their security systems if they had. Not for the first time, Trask gave thanks for Meia’s existence. He wondered where she was now, if she still existed at all. He thought of h
er often as he looked up at the stars.

  The village had one small petrol station. Trask’s younger daughter, Jean, who was driving the truck, parked alongside it, and she, Nessa, and Dolan set about accessing its tanks and unloading barrels from the truck bed. Burgess checked the garage at the back of the station for oil and spare parts, while Mackay, who was just nineteen and the son of one of the botanists, kept watch for drones.

  Leaving them to their work, Trask got in the jeep with Lindsay, a tiny, round-faced redhead who drove like a lunatic, albeit a gifted one, and they began gathering tins from store cupboards across the village—beans, soup, fruit, even creamed rice, which Trask had hated as a child and still hated now. They did pretty well, and only had to shoot one rat along the way. It was a small one, by their standards: about a foot in length. The really big ones were in the cities, which was another reason to stay away from urban centers.

  They then headed back to a little shop just off the main street. Trask had found its address in a telephone directory, and it was one of the reasons why he’d nominated this village for one of their increasingly rare expeditions beyond the immediate environs of the bunker. The sign on the store read graham’s hunting & fishing ltd. The door was open and the floor strewn with leaves and litter that had blown inside. A corpse, more bones than anything else, lay behind the counter.

  The front of the store was mainly devoted to fishing rods and lures, along with waterproof clothing and nets, but a smaller room at the back proved more interesting. To the right was a glass case filled with knives, and knives never went to waste, while the shelves were lined with boxes of ammunition. At the rear of the room, in a curtained alcove, stood a locked gun safe.

  Trask turned back to the corpse, but Lindsay was already searching it. She wasn’t squeamish. Few of them were, really, not after all they’d seen.

  “Found them,” she said, waving a bunch of keys that she’d taken from the dead man’s belt.

 
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