Dominion, p.14
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       Dominion, p.14

           John Connolly
 

  The key to the safe was the third they tried. Inside were five shotguns, three rifles, and a pair of target-shooting pistols.

  “Not bad,” said Trask.

  They had found Illyri pulse weapons in the bunker, but they were coded to prevent humans from operating them, so only Fremd had any use for them, although he spent his spare moments trying to break the DNA locks. They wanted every man, woman, and child to have a gun, but so far there were only two weapons for every three people. The contents of the safe would help to redress the imbalance.

  He helped Lindsay to load the weapons into the jeep, and then the two of them worked in relays to empty the shelves of ammunition. Lindsay also took all of the hunting bows, and every arrow she could find. She was one of a number of survivors who had grown adept with a bow, and they were now teaching archery to the children and younger teenagers.

  They returned to the garage, and helped to load the cans of fuel onto the truck. They’d filled two with diesel, and one with petrol—a decent yield, given that the Illyri had controlled fuel reserves while they were on Earth, and had done their best to destroy the supplies in as many petrol stations as they could before they left. The village didn’t look likely to provide them with much else, so they parked the truck and jeep in the garage, and waited.

  This was always the hard part. They all had a bottle of water mixed with protein powder strapped inside their suits, and a tube through which to drink it, but that was the only sustenance they’d enjoy until they returned to the bunker. They replenished their oxygen from the tanks in the jeep, and tried to find somewhere comfortable to lie down. At least the protective clothing left by the Illyri wasn’t too cumbersome to wear, which helped a bit. The material adapted to fit the body, so it was rather like wearing a slightly loose-fitting wet suit. A tube took care of toilet needs, and the suit converted urine to vapor, but anything bigger had to be held until the wearer was back in the safety of the bunker. It was one of the reasons why they never ranged for longer than a day, although even that could be a strain.

  Trask and Lindsay took the first watch. A couple of books were always kept in the vehicles for situations like this, but Trask had brought his own. He’d come across it by accident on one of their searches. It had been sitting in the window of a charity shop in Galway, and he’d taken it from the display. The Complete Robot, it was called, by Isaac Asimov.

  Lindsay had found a dog-eared copy of Middlemarch by George Eliot beside the oxygen tanks. She looked slightly enviously at Trask’s book.

  “Want to swap?” she asked.

  “I’m nearly finished,” he replied. “You can have it after me.”

  He glanced at her book.

  “God, Middlemarch,” he said. “Nobody will admit to leaving that in the jeep. I think about twenty people have started it, and no one has ever finished it.”

  “If I’d known, I’d have brought something else.”

  “You’ll know better in future,” he said.

  “Are you planning to build one?”

  “Build what?”

  “A robot.”

  “It’s not a ‘how-to’ book. It’s a novel.”

  “Oh. Why’d you pick that, then?”

  Trask marked the page he was on with a finger, and turned to the cover, as though the answer might lie there.

  “A friend sort of recommended it to me,” he said.

  • • •

  They stayed quiet after that, because everyone else had fallen asleep. The coms links had to be kept open in case of an emergency, and the rest of their group could hardly doze with Trask and Lindsay babbling in their ears. Trask was absorbed in his book. The hours drifted by. After four had passed, he woke Dolan and Nessa, and they took over the watch. Lindsay fell asleep instantly, but Trask stayed awake for a while. He was thinking about robots, and how rational they were supposed to be, and Meia. Being rational and principled weren’t the same thing. If Meia were truly rational, she’d abandon Trask and the rest of humanity and leave them to survive as best they could, or let them die in the process. But if she were principled, she’d come back to help them.

  Trask hoped that she was principled. No, he believed that she was. He prayed that God would prove him right.

  He laughed. He couldn’t help it. He saw Dolan and Nessa staring at him. Look at me, he thought: I’m praying now. That was what hope did for you.

  And Meia was his hope.

  CHAPTER 23

  Trask was roused from his sleep by Nessa. Years of fighting the Illyri, and of sleeping in strange places while on raids, had trained him to wake silently. Now he looked up at Nessa and saw her right forefinger placed against her mask. He nodded. She pointed straight up, and he heard it: the low hum of a drone.

  He wasn’t worried about the drone picking up their heat signatures. The biohazard clothing also functioned as darksuits, masking body heat. Neither was he concerned about the drone noticing the truck and the jeep. They were in a garage, and it would hardly be surprising to find vehicles under its roof. Had they left them out in the open, by the pumps, it might have been another matter. Still, this was a small village, and a drone had no business being there. Trask wasn’t a great believer in coincidences. Like lottery wins, they were something that happened to other people.

  The rest were awake too, but remained motionless. Nobody wanted to move in case they made a sound in the unfamiliar surroundings of the garage, and brought the drone down upon them.

  The drone, or worse.

  Trask’s mouth was dry, but he was too wary even to take a sip of fluid through his straw.

  The growling ceased, and the ground beneath them shook as something heavy landed outside. Burgess was closest to the front of the garage, and risked a quick glance through the window.

  “Cutter!” he cried, and then the thing was upon them. The garage door buckled under the first impact, and gave way entirely to the second. For a moment Trask saw the Cutter silhouetted against the fading afternoon sunlight. It looked like a great squid, with long flailing tentacles ending in flat, bladelike protrusions that could slice through metal as easily as flesh, hence the name the humans had given to the creature. But those blades could also come apart to form gripping claws, or narrow to sharp points like spears. The tentacles surrounded a beaked mouth in the heart of its yellowish body, ringed with black, spiderlike eyes. It moved on four jointed legs that could be retracted into its torso, allowing it to roll easily, and, regardless of how it landed, those legs immediately appeared again, so it was always upright.

  Burgess raised his shotgun to fire, and managed to get off a blast, but the Cutter was too quick for him. It rolled to its right, and one of the blades whipped at Burgess’s suit, tearing a line across his chest. Immediately he began to bleed, but he still had enough strength to pump the shotgun and fire again. As he pulled the trigger, the Cutter yanked him from the ground. A tentacle gripped his weapon and flung it away. The beaked mouth opened, and from it emerged a hollow black tube that entered Burgess’s body through the hole in his clothing. The rest of the group heard him scream, even as they themselves started firing, and then Burgess’s body began to swell, and a cloud of spores burst from his suit as he died.

  Chunks of flesh were blown from the Cutter as Trask and the others concentrated their fire on its body, but the wounds were only superficial. They had to try to get behind it, and aim for the vulnerable spot at the base of its skull. In the meantime, all they could do was attempt to keep it at bay as they maneuvered around it, seeking their chance to strike.

  The Cutter tensed its body, extended its limbs, and suddenly it was above them, clinging to the steel rafters below the garage roof. With astonishing speed, it jumped from beam to beam until it was directly above Dolan, and then dropped straight down. The four sections of its beaked mouth closed upon him, so that only his legs were visible. This time, there were no spores, and they were all forced to listen to the brief sounds of his dying. The beak locked closed, and the lower half of Dolan
’s body fell to the floor.

  Trask flung himself to the ground and opened fire with his machine pistol, but most of the bullets simply bounced off the Cutter’s bony tentacles. At least one shot got through, though, for Trask saw a black eye disintegrate. It would hurt the Cutter, but it wouldn’t stop it. The beast had plenty of eyes to spare.

  But now Nessa, Jean, and Mackay were moving in on it, simultaneously firing so that its attention was divided between them. Where was Lindsay? thought Trask. Had she been hurt? Then he saw her. She was standing in the shadows near Nessa and Jean, just waiting. What the hell was she doing?

  Under pressure from the three shooters, the Cutter was forced to jump for the roof again, and Lindsay made her move. She threw herself to the floor beneath it, landing on her back, one of the hunting bows raised. The Cutter was above her, hanging vertically as it pulled itself to the rafters, and the hollow in its skull was briefly exposed. Lindsay released the arrow, watching with satisfaction as it hit its mark, then swiftly got out of the way as the Cutter fell like a boulder, raising dust from the floor and rattling the old paint cans on the shelves as it landed. Its limbs flailed aimlessly, and yellow fluid shot from its beak, before it let out a single shriek and died.

  Trask went to the window. The hollow drone stood on the garage forecourt, a section of it hanging open. It looked big enough to take one Cutter, but not two, and Trask couldn’t see or hear any other drones. They were done. He stepped outside, wondering what had brought the drone down on them until, even in the dimming light, he saw a trail of fresh oily footprints leading from one of the pumps to the garage door. He checked his boots, but they seemed clean. The prints were big. Probably not one of the girls or Mackay, then: Burgess, or Dolan. God help them, whichever one of them it was had paid for his mistake.

  Back inside, Jean was standing over the Cutter with one of her big knives. That girl and her blades, thought Trask. Still, this was a rare opportunity. They’d only killed a few Cutters so far, and three of them had been too damaged in the aftermath to be of any use.

  “Careful,” he said.

  Jean knelt, inserted the knife just above the point at which Lindsay’s arrow had entered the Cutter’s skull, and began to slice. It was hard work, but the blade’s serrated edge helped. With Nessa’s assistance, Jean peeled back the folds of the Cutter’s scalp, exposing its skull and, at its base, the hole through which the arrow had entered. It was big enough to accommodate Jean’s small fist. She reached inside.

  “I have it,” she said.

  She yanked. There was some resistance.

  “I think it’s the arrow,” she said.

  Mackay joined them and tugged, and the arrow came free. When Jean’s hand emerged again, it was holding one of the Others. It was big, the biggest they’d yet seen. It was about the size of a kitten, a really hideous, hairless, prawn-like kitten. The arrow had pierced it through the core, killing it instantly along with the Cutter.

  It confirmed what they had suspected. Like some of the Illyri, the alien Cutters acted as hosts for the Others, but the ones that the Cutters carried were more developed than any they had previously found in the skulls of the Illyri they’d managed to kill over the last year or two, or at least the handful they’d been able to get to before they destroyed themselves in a burst of spores. This one hadn’t been given time to self-destruct.

  Fremd believed that these Others might be of a higher order, and the Cutters enabled them to move around, to roam their new realm, for they were the rulers of Earth now. In return for hosting them, the foul Cutters got to feed on what was left of humans after the spores had emerged. Sometimes, as in the case of poor Dolan, they feasted while their victims were still alive.

  “Get one of the jars,” Trask instructed. “We’ll take it back to Fremd.”

  It had taken a great deal of convincing for Trask to agree with Fremd’s request to examine any remains of the Others that they found. Fremd had assured him that the lab was secure, and Trask had eventually, if reluctantly, recognized that to understand the Others, and determine their vulnerabilities, specimens were needed. He drew the line at live ones, though, even if they’d been able to find any, and any spore sacs had to be destroyed before the remains were allowed into the bunker. Jean did that now, gently removing the sac from the underside of the Other. It was barely bigger than her thumb. She found some mineral spirits on the garage shelf, poured it on the sac, and set it alight, while Nessa fetched a sample jar and shoved the Other into it.

  By now the sun was going down, and a shaft of brilliant light burst through the dusty window. Red spores danced like dust in its beam. Damn, they’d be covered in them. The suits and vehicles would have to be decontaminated with a vengeance. He looked over at Burgess’s body in its suit, and what was left of Dolan. They could bag Burgess and return him for burial. It wouldn’t be pleasant for his wife and kid, but at least they’d have a chance to say goodbye, and Burgess wasn’t the first who’d been buried in that kind of state. But Dolan . . .

  Mackay joined him, and followed the direction of his gaze.

  “God,” she said. “What’ll we do?”

  “We’ll tell his wife the truth,” said Trask, “or most of it; a Cutter got him, and he died quickly, but there was nothing left of him to bury.”

  “But we can’t just leave his remains here.”

  “We’ll dig a hole. I guess someone can say a prayer. It makes no difference to him now.”

  Lindsay helped Mackay to put Burgess into a body bag—they always traveled with them, but never referred to them until they were needed, a small superstition to which everyone adhered—while Nessa and Jean did the same with what was left of Dolan. Trask dug a shallow hole for him in the field at the back of the garage, but they did not mark the spot for fear of alerting still more drones to their presence. Instead, Trask’s daughters scattered leaves on the grave, and Lindsay said a quick prayer. Her grandfather had been a preacher of some sort, and she knew all the words for the services, but Dolan got only the briefest of farewells. Something was bound to come looking to see what had happened to the occupant of the drone, and they wanted to be well on their way back to the bunker by that time.

  They set out for home in the dark, driving slowly because they couldn’t use headlights. True, drones might pick up the heat of the trucks, and they would be visible to night-vision scanners, but there was no point in making things any easier for the invaders than they had to be. Anyway, the drones would have to be overflying the right area to spot them, and there were fewer of them to do that than before. They’d just been unlucky with the one earlier in the day.

  Trask stayed with Lindsay, and his girls and Mackay followed in the truck. They had gas, diesel, some weapons, lots of canned food, and a big sample for Fremd to examine, but it had cost them two men. At least his daughters were safe; that was something. But he didn’t know for how much longer they could continue like this. Sooner or later, the Cutters would get them all, or the spores would. Their world had been turned against them. They were like cockroaches hiding in the shadows, waiting to be exterminated.

  PART VI

  THE RETURN

  CHAPTER 24

  The Gradus, the Corps cruiser assigned to monitor the mouth of the Derith wormhole, was one of the newest in the fleet. It had been named after the late Grand Consul Gradus at the request of his widow, the Archmage Syrene, who had worn her navy-blue widow’s robes to its inaugural voyage—a grand affair where all had feted her, and crowds had cheered. As far as the commander of the Gradus was concerned, Syrene and the rest of her sort could take a jump into a boiling pit of lava for all the difference it would make to him. For someone who had chosen to cloister herself in the Marque, he grumbled to himself, Syrene certainly spent a lot of time playing the grand public dame. Well, she used to, before she apparently vanished into the depths of the Marque to meditate, or play with voodoo dolls, or scratch her backside, or whatever it was the Nairenes did behind its walls.

  Th
e commander yawned. His name was Waltere, and he had been staring at the Derith wormhole for so long that he saw it in his sleep. Already the Gradus’s tour of duty at Derith had been extended twice, despite assurances from CentCom, the Corps’ new central command, that he and his crew would soon be put to more productive use. He was growing uncomfortably familiar with that promise, and it was starting to sound distinctly hollow.

  CentCom had been established at the outbreak of the war, when a new structure became necessary in order to ensure that communications remained uncompromised by the Military. For Waltere, it was just another layer of officialdom and bureaucracy. The Corps seemed to be forming new subgroups, and instituting additional protocols, on a daily basis, all of them designed to disguise the fact—whisper it—that the war was most definitely not going according to plan. Oh, the initial attack on Melos Station had gone brilliantly, removing from the board, with one massive explosion, a good quarter of the Military hierarchy, and a tenth of its ships. Unfortunately, all of the other assaults had been botched, either partially or entirely, mostly because the Corps had grown soft. That was what happened when the Military was left to handle the dirty work of conquest: its troops became battle-hardened and seasoned, while Corps forces were only good for mopping up the stragglers, or directing traffic.

  The Securitats were another matter, although even they got in much of their practice from torturing civilians—Waltere had done one tour of duty on Earth, in France, and had no illusions about how the Securitats went about their business. But there weren’t enough of the Securitats for them to be able to engage in full confrontations with the Military without massive Corps support, and the two organizations had their own command structures, neither of which entirely trusted the other. Meanwhile, a good chunk of the Military remained intact, although scattered or in hiding, popping out only to launch lighting guerrilla raids on Corps ships and stations before retreating back to their hidden bases. But the rumors were that the Military was preparing for a massive counterattack, in the hope of regaining the Illyr system, and the homeworld, and forcing the Corps and its allies either to surrender or sue for peace. To be fair, those rumors had been circulating since the start of the war, when it became clear that the initial attacks designed to decapitate the Military had failed, but they’d been growing in intensity in recent times.

 
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