Dominion, p.15
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       Dominion, p.15

           John Connolly
 

  Sometimes, Waltere thought that he might have picked the wrong side in this fight, but it was too late to change now.

  The Gradus, although big, had a skeleton crew of just twelve, operating in three rotations. It boasted state-of-the-art shielding and weaponry, none of which it had yet had a chance to test. Boredom had made the crew fractious and difficult. Being trapped in a tin can beside a remote wormhole tended to have that effect. Only the regular bursts of contact from CentCom through the beacon arrays confirmed that the Gradus had not been forgotten entirely.

  Waltere blamed his ship’s name. He had been present when Syrene requested—ordered, in anyone else’s language, since what the Archmage wanted, she got—that the Gradus assume primary responsibility for monitoring the wormhole. He knew that the only reason anyone still cared about Derith was because the Archmage’s stepdaughter had vanished into it, along with a handful of humans, two of whom might have been involved in Grand Consul Gradus’s death. The real meat on those tenuous bones, and the only interesting thing about the mission, was that a Mech had accompanied the escapees.

  Waltere had never seen one of the artificial beings. They were all supposed to have been destroyed before he was born. He didn’t hold out much hope of seeing the one that had entered the Derith wormhole anytime soon. Whatever lay on the other side of that hole was bad news: a giant meteor field, a sun, a collapsing star . . . Someone had even suggested aliens. Waltere had almost laughed at that one, until he saw something flicker in the face of Syrene and some of the senior Corps officials when the possibility was mentioned. He’d said nothing, but their reaction had remained with him.

  Now he sat slumped in his captain’s chair, staring at that blasted wormhole, thinking of all the possibilities for glory and advancement that had passed him by while the Gradus floated in this backwater of the universe. It was all an illusion, of course. Waltere was not particularly bright, but he was savvy enough to know that he would never excel in the field. If he’d actually fought in the war, then he’d either be dead or injured by this point; that, or given a posting far from the lines where he couldn’t do any harm.

  A bit like this one, he supposed.

  Yallee, his second in command, stepped into his field of vision. Yallee wasn’t very pretty, but then Waltere wasn’t very handsome. With nothing else to do on board the Gradus, she and Waltere had begun a casual affair. It wasn’t a good idea, of course, even if they were both single, because it wasn’t like there was any way of getting away from each other when they fought, which was increasingly often. It was also against all regulations. They could both be court-martialed if CentCom discovered their relationship, although at least that would mean they would both be sent back to Illyr for trial. Waltere was occasionally tempted to confess, just so he could return home. If he did, he and Yallee wouldn’t be going back alone. One half of the crew was permanently sleeping with the other half: they got together, they broke up, they got together with someone else. He had trouble keeping track of who was bedding down with whom. By contrast, he and Yallee had been together for so long that they counted as an old married couple by the standards of the Gradus.

  “It’s time for a drill,” said Yallee.

  “Really?” said Waltere. He had a headache, and the noise of the drill siren would only make it worse. “Maybe we could just postpone.”

  Nobody liked drills. It meant waking those crew members who were asleep, or disturbing those who were off duty, just to line them up before the captain’s chair so Waltere could be sure that, if anything did happen, they might actually be prepared to deal with it. During the last drill, Holtus, one of the engineers, had simply refused to leave his bed, and not even the appearance of Waltere beside his bunk threatening him at gunpoint had convinced him to get out of it. Eventually, Waltere had put away his pulser and gone back to his chair. It just didn’t seem worth the effort . . .

  Later he’d had a talk with Holtus, who accepted that, among other things, it was bad for morale to have him disobey a direct order. Holtus agreed to appear for drills as long as they were scheduled for a time when he wasn’t asleep, which wasn’t ideal from Waltere’s point of view but was still better than nothing. Unfortunately, when this arrangement became widely known, nobody else wanted to be woken up either, so now drills were scheduled for when shifts ended, and the time was posted a day in advance so everyone knew when to expect it. This completely defeated the purpose of drills, but nobody cared, least of all Waltere, because nothing ever happened here anyway.

  Which was why, when the ship appeared from the Derith wormhole, it took him a few moments to register its presence. He could see it, but his brain, numbed by inactivity, struggled to accept the reality of it. Eventually, he managed to get the words out.

  “That’s a ship!” he said, standing up.

  Yallee turned to look. By the time she saw it, Waltere had already sounded the alert, and the siren raged through the Gradus.

  “You’d better tell them that it’s not a drill,” said Yallee.

  Good idea, thought Waltere. He hit his coms button.

  “This is not a drill,” he announced. “Repeat: this is not a drill. Seriously.”

  • • •

  Steven and Alis saw the Corps cruiser the moment they emerged from the wormhole. Steven was dizzy from the boost, so he quickly handed control of the Nomad to Alis.

  “Rizzo?” he said. It came out sharply, like a high-pitched bark, and he cursed puberty, vowing to modulate his tones next time. Well, if there was a next time, for already the cruiser was turning toward them, its heavy cannon swiveling in their direction.

  Rizzo appeared calm, however, and was quickly making adjustments to the weapons.

  “Targeting,” she said.

  Steven nodded at her, swallowing hard. I’m not even sixteen, he thought, what the hell am I doing?

  “Three, two, one,” said Rizzo. “Targeting complete. We have a lock.”

  On the screens, the nameless vessel turned green.

  Steven swallowed again. Actually, wasn’t he almost eighteen? A couple of years had already passed on this side of the wormhole, if the Cayth were to be believed; technically, he was nearly old enough to drive! In another parallel universe, he’d be old enough to have a pint, legitimately, with Paul down at the Bear Arms near his Edinburgh home. Maybe his mum would have joined them; she always liked a dash of lime in her lager.

  His mum . . .

  “Fire,” he said.

  • • •

  On board the Gradus, the rest of the crew was still assembling when the torpedo launched. Yallee had taken the copilot’s seat and was maneuvering the ship to bring the new arrival under their guns. Their scanners had identified it as the same vessel that had fled into the wormhole over two years earlier.

  Elvo, the duty weapons officer, was already at her post.

  “Shields!” cried Waltere.

  “Shields up,” confirmed Elvo. “But it’s going to hit us.”

  They braced for impact, but none came. The torpedo erupted in a burst of white light while it was still some way from them. In an instant, the Gradus lost all power. The only illumination came from distant stars, and the glow of the energy net that now surrounded them.

  “All systems down,” said Yallee, but Waltere didn’t need her to tell him that. He could see and hear for himself. Oxygen was their first concern. They needed to get emergency life support up and running, or they’d soon start to suffocate.

  A wall of illumination appeared in the center of the cabin. There were no Others on the Gradus, but it didn’t matter. The torpedo’s functions were automatic: arm, fire, disable.

  Decontaminate.

  Waltere felt heat upon his skin, and then he felt nothing else at all.

  CHAPTER 25

  Like all Illyri vessels, the Gradus was fitted with a Universal Docking Connector, allowing one ship to link with another. Alis brought the Nomad in under the UDC, and sent out an identifying signal to the shiny new cruiser,
the electronic equivalent of a knock on the door requesting permission to enter. The crew hadn’t been given time to disable the UDC before they were obliterated, and the ship’s systems automatically unlocked the connector.

  The cruiser was three or four times larger than the Nomad. Like most Illyri cruisers, it could be used to transport troops and equipment if required, and its bay was big enough to hold several motorized vehicles. The bay could also be adapted to provide temporary living and sleeping quarters for soldiers.

  Alis remained on board the Nomad while Steven and Rizzo went exploring. A peculiar, ripe smell hung in the air. It took a few seconds for Steven to identify it as the faintest odor of charred meat, the aftermath of the decontamination process. No, not decontamination, Steven realized. Call it what it was: the torpedo had somehow incinerated the crew of this ship and then erased any trace that they had ever existed.

  The first thing Steven did was to check the levels of food on board, fearing that the blast had destroyed everything biological. He felt a sense of relief when he opened the galley stores, for the ship had clearly been resupplied recently and the larder looked pretty full. Adjoining the galley was what looked like a greenhouse crossed with a science laboratory, where bacteria were being grown as a supplementary food source. That was all good. The Cayth had replicated more food based on their analysis of the Nomad’s supplies, but Steven remained slightly wary of it.

  A voice spoke into his headset.

  “Steven?”

  It was Alis on the Nomad, who’d busied herself with accessing all of the information and manifests that she could from the new vessel.

  “I hear you.”

  “You won’t believe what this cruiser is called.”

  Alis knew much of the Kerr brothers’ history on Earth.

  “Try me.”

  “You’ve just boarded the K-Class Diplomatic Cruiser Gradus.”

  Steven laughed.

  “You mean, as in Grand Consul Gradus?”

  “The same.”

  “Wow, so they named a ship after him. I’m sure he’d be happy to know that.”

  He found Rizzo already seated at the weapons system, assessing its firepower and defenses.

  “It’s much more advanced than the Nomad,” she told Paul. “We could start a war with this thing.”

  “It’s not just the weapons,” Alis added, from her post on the Nomad. “Its engines are at least a generation on from ours. It’s faster, and more powerful.”

  “Can we keep it?” asked Rizzo. She was bouncing up and down on her seat. “Can we? Can we?”

  Steven couldn’t tell if she was just pretending to be childlike, or if the possibility of so much new firepower at her fingertips had temporarily unhinged her.

  “It’s not a bad idea,” said Alis, “especially given what we have to do.”

  Steven felt a pang of regret. He was fond of the Nomad. It had been through so much, and hadn’t let them down, plus the Cayth had run diagnostics on it while it was in the bowels of their own ship, and the necessary repairs had been made in a fraction of the time it would have taken at an Illyri installation. But Alis and—God help us—Rizzo were right. They might be glad of the living space that the Gradus offered, and additional engine power and weaponry would never go amiss.

  “Can we transfer the remaining Cayth torpedoes?” Steven asked.

  “I did it once,” said Alis. “I can do it again.”

  He looked around the cockpit. It was gleaming, although that might not have been unconnected to the recent decontamination.

  “It is a beautiful ship,” he admitted.

  “Paul will understand,” said Alis.

  “We can leave him a note,” said Rizzo.

  Steven might not have been in command of his own ship for long, but he knew when to go along with the wishes of his crew.

  “Okay,” he said. “But I’ll write the note.”

  • • •

  With all three of them working, it was only a matter of hours before the torpedoes were lying in the Gradus’s weapons bay, and all necessary equipment had been transferred from the Nomad. Alis then downloaded the records of all communications from the Gradus to the Nomad, which provided a potted history of the civil war’s progress. From what Steven and the others could tell, the Corps and its allies were now in control, but only within the Illyr system and a couple of outlying colonies. Beyond these, scattered Military forces were constantly harassing them. Alis was unable to find very much reference to Earth, though, apart from records of craft movements to and from its solar system, and there was no reference at all to the Others. This was a Corps vessel, but information about the creatures that dwelled in the heads of the hierarchy was still apparently being kept from the rank and file. A Securitat ship might give them a better insight, if they could capture one.

  Now, with the transfers to and from the Nomad complete, it was time to send their old ship back through the wormhole. Steven was surprised at how emotional he became as he stroked the familiar control panel in farewell, before setting it to autopilot. He stepped through the port into the waiting Gradus, sealing the connection behind him.

  “Ready, Alis,” he said, and again his voice didn’t sound right to his ears, but this time for other reasons. They all watched as the Nomad grew smaller and smaller, a dot sucked up by the vastness of Derith. The lump in his throat was painful, and his eyes were hot. Stupid, he thought. She was just a ship, and it wasn’t like he was sending her to her grave.

  But still . . .

  He waited a few minutes, staring at the point where the Nomad had disappeared, then turned away. He patted the hull of the Gradus. This was his command now.

  “The first thing to do is come up with a new name for her,” he told Rizzo and Alis. “I’m not going to spend my days sitting in the belly of Gradus.”

  They said nothing, probably because they were both singularly lacking in imagination, but he told himself it was because they reasoned it should be his decision, as their captain. For a moment, he considered naming it after his mother, but he wasn’t sure that the Katherine had quite the air of threat he was seeking. Also, it immediately brought to mind images of fireworks, of wild Catherine wheels spraying circles of fire into the sky, which was definitely not what he wanted to associate with his new ship.

  “The Revenge,” he said finally. “What do you think?”

  “Revenge,” said Rizzo. “It’s a good name.”

  Alis nodded. It was decided.

  Their course appeared on the window display. With this ship, they’d reach the first wormhole in less than fourteen hours. Steven didn’t sit in the captain’s chair, but instead assumed the pilot’s seat beside Alis.

  “You have control, sir,” she said, but unlike Syl, with Paul there was no teasing in her voice.

  “No, you take her,” said Steven, and at last his voice was steady and strong. “On my command.”

  A memory from his childhood came to him: the voice of his mother reading him a story.

  “Second star to the right,” he said, “and straight on till morning.”

  CHAPTER 26

  Paul had only just stopped staring at the wormhole into which the Nomad had vanished, and was about to say something to Thula about the Varcis, when Derith bloomed again. Paul had momentarily forgotten about the time slip, so that hours on the other side of the wormhole were only minutes on the Cayth side. The ship grew larger, moving steadily on autopilot.

  “Hey,” said Thula. “That looks like the Nomad.”

  A Cayth scan immediately confirmed that it was. What’s more, there were no signs of life on board. Paul felt ill. Something had gone wrong. Had Steven and the others been captured, or killed? Had the Cayth somehow turned on them after all? Yet Fara and Kal appeared as perturbed as Paul was.

  “We’re bringing the ship in,” said Fara.

  There was a tense wait while they did so. As soon as the Nomad docked and a final Cayth scan had declared it safe and clear, Paul, Syl,
and Thula entered it, with Meia hooked in over the coms link.

  “Is that a note on the cockpit window?” asked Thula.

  It was, and it was addressed to Paul. He wrenched it from the glass, unfolded it, and read it.

  “Well, what does it say?” asked Syl.

  Paul grinned.

  “It says, ‘We decided to upgrade. Happy travels!’ ”

  Meia continued to work on the Varcis, with Thula helping her. Paul and Syl began examining the data that Alis had uploaded to the Nomad, while Kal and Fara busied themselves on the other side of the cockpit, adding the stream to the combined intellect of the Cayth collective, for they too wanted to explore the new information.

  “Right,” said Paul as he and Syl dug into the task at hand. It took a while to untangle the web of data, deciding what was of use and what was dispensable, but once they did, it revealed a treasure trove. Aside from including the reports on the progress of the war received by the Gradus—and both Paul and Syl laughed at the irony of seizing a vessel with that name—the cruiser also maintained updated records of all Corps bases, and a registry of planned fleet movements for the months to come. Admittedly, the latter wouldn’t be much use by the time the Nomad and Varcis were ready to go back through the wormhole, but it gave them a pretty good idea of the size and disposition of the Corps fleet, including two Corps ships, the Satia and the Iria, that were apparently in permanent stationary orbit over the earth, along with an unnamed third craft, designated only “SD.”

  “A Securitat vessel,” said Paul. At least Steven would have an idea of what he would be facing when he eventually reached their home planet. “But it’s not exactly giving us any info about what might have happened on the earth’s surface.”

 
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