Dominion, p.16
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       Dominion, p.16

           John Connolly
 

  Syl, seated beside Paul, nudged him with her elbow.

  “Try going backward,” she said.

  “Backward?”

  “Yes, see how far backward you can get in the records. Since we’ve been here over two days, try two years. See what was heading to Earth two years ago.”

  He looked at her, confused, and then started to smile.

  “Right!” he said. “Of course.”

  Syl gave a superior sniff, then leaned close toward him.

  “See,” she whispered into his ear, “I’m not just a pretty face.”

  “No,” replied Paul, but her breast was brushing against his arm—not entirely by accident, he thought—and this charged touch robbed him of any other words he wanted to add. He turned to face her, wondering, and in response she snaked her arms around him, warm and strong, pulling him into her embrace. He let himself be held for a moment before he took her golden face in his hands and kissed her, at first chastely and then fully, passionately, on the lips, and then he found that he couldn’t stop—he didn’t want to stop. It was a kiss like he couldn’t remember: desperate, deep, and intense with longing. Her mouth was soft and pliant beneath his, and he could have sworn Syl swooned. Or maybe he did.

  He thought he might kiss her forever, but as they pressed closer together the white-noise murmur of the collective Cayth increased to an intrigued hum, and then a loud buzzing, like a hive of honey-drunk bees, until Paul and Syl pulled apart, reluctant but bashful, suddenly aware that they weren’t alone.

  “Wow,” murmured Syl, and her eyes were shining. For that moment, she looked happier than Paul had ever seen her, carefree and glowing and so very much alive. He never wanted that joyful abandon to leave her again, and he wished it could be so, and every nerve inside him seemed to be tingling too, thirsting for more.

  The figures of Kal and Fara shuffled awkwardly, and then stood up together.

  “We will return later,” said Fara, though she lingered for a few seconds, seeming to drink in the reality of Syl before slipping away after Kal. She shut the door firmly behind her.

  Left so pointedly unattended, Syl and Paul found themselves oddly shy.

  Syl spoke first. “Well, that was a bit awkward,” she said.

  “Nice of them, though,” said Paul, and he was immediately annoyed at himself for saying something so bland, so banal. Syl didn’t seem to mind.

  “I wondered when we were going to do that again. Or if we were,” she said.

  “I wasn’t exactly sure you wanted me to.”

  A smile flickered at the corners of Syl’s wonderful mouth.

  “Then you’re dumber than you look,” she said, “because . . .”

  She went silent for a moment, then seemed to make a decision.

  “ . . . because I love you, Paul Kerr.”

  As those three words spilled out, concern furrowed the skin between her eyes, and she looked at her lap, fearful she’d gone too far.

  “Ah, Syl”—Paul placed his palm on her cheek again, lifting her face, smiling at her—“I love you too. More than I can begin to tell you. And I refuse to let you go again. Ever. I won’t allow it.”

  She grinned properly. “That sounds almost like an order, sir.”

  “Damn right it is, Syl Hellais. You’re one of my crew now.”

  “Damn right I am, Lieutenant,” she replied, “so let’s get to work,” and shoulder to shoulder they returned to the Gradus’s records.

  As Syl had suggested, Paul ran a backward check on ship movements to and from Earth, starting from the time they’d fled Erebos, and that was where he found what they’d been looking for: details of the evacuation of mainly Corps personnel, clear from the intense traffic of shuttles to and from the planet’s surface. He scrolled further, searching the records methodically for fear he’d miss something, until Syl, who was clearly scanning faster than him, pointed at a cluster of entries. There had been a flurry of activity on a late Sunday morning, leading into early afternoon. Then the departures slowed to a jagged trickle, before petering out altogether. But the records also showed the simultaneous arrival of several large transporters through the wormhole nearest the planet, again with the designation “SD.” They were the last ships to go in.

  So the Cayth were right, and Fenuless had not been lying. They were too late: the home planet had already been sacrificed. Still unwilling to believe it, Paul frantically read what remained of the Earth entries, gnawing at his knuckles as he did so, keeping the despairing wail that ballooned in his throat in check, barely able to breath.

  Mum, he thought. Oh, Mum—I’m so sorry.

  The only piece of potentially positive news was that ten of these transporters had originally been set on a course for Earth, but two had been ambushed and destroyed by the Military in the early days of the war, and they could find no sign of others being sent to replace them. Perhaps their irradiation of the breeding facilities at Archaeon had not been in vain. There was still hope. Surely there was—he couldn’t countenance any other possibility. After all, if the Illyri had believed that ten tankers of spores were necessary for the destruction of life on Earth, and only eight had managed to get through, then pockets of humanity and other life might well have survived. Such slim hope.

  But he had to try to put Earth out of his mind, for now—he knew that, for it was the only way he would be able to function. He had tied his future, and their ultimate salvation, to Syl, his lovely Syl.

  “I’m sorry, Paul,” she said quietly beside him. “I’m so sorry.”

  He didn’t know how long she’d been holding his hand, but now he turned to her and they clung together, holding on as if they were the last two lovers in the universe.

  Finally they kissed again, and this time neither had the strength nor will to pull away as they became lost in each other. The Cayth’s buzzing faded, turning to a background hum and then to silence as the collective turned away, and the Earth-boy and the alien-girl made their silent vows, and they at last gave themselves to each other, completely, in both body and mind.

  • • •

  Later Paul and Syl would remember that hour as a moment of sweetest light, for they had a greater, darker mission to face: the defeat and annihilation of the Others. They could only do it together, always together.

  And while they worried about the universe, Steven Kerr—a man in a child’s body—could worry about Earth.

  CHAPTER 27

  The trip to the wormhole gave Steven time to explore more thoroughly the records kept on the Revenge. Even Alis, involved as she was with reprogramming the ship for the Cayth torpedoes and familiarizing herself with its systems, had barely skimmed them, although “skimming” for Alis was the human equivalent of learning by heart a couple of volumes of an encyclopedia. For every good piece of news he uncovered—a Military victory here, a Corps mishap there—he found three items of bad. One of them immediately necessitated a change of plan for the crew of the Revenge: Coramal, their destination, one of five Brigade bases and Military training facilities scattered throughout Illyri-controlled systems, and the planet on which Steven and Paul had been trained, was gone.

  The Corps—or rather, as the report made clear, the Securitats—had decided that the Brigade bases were primary targets at the outbreak of the civil war. The Corps had always distrusted the conscripts that largely made up the Brigades, because they were human and under the control of the Military, but the Securitats seemed to indulge a hatred of humanity that bordered on the genocidal. In the civil war, it was pretty clear on which side the Brigades would fight. Perhaps then, thought Steven, it should have come as no surprise when the Revenge’s records revealed that Securitat assault squads had attacked the five bases almost simultaneously, and without mercy. There were, he noted, no injuries among the Brigades; all casualties were recorded as fatalities. He knew what that meant: the Securitats had killed the wounded.

  The teenager closed his eyes and put his head in his hands. He remembered the staff, both Illyri a
nd human, who had trained him on Coramal. Most had been decent, and some much more than that, among them Cairus, who had been his mentor and senior pilot trainer. Cairus had taken nothing but joy in Steven’s achievements, and had made him the pilot he was. Cairus was patient, intelligent, and a born teacher, but he had only taken on the role of pilot trainer after a skimmer crash severed his legs and damaged his spine so badly that even advanced Illyri medical technology could only manage to keep him alive, control the pain, and provide him with a hover chair so he could move around. The spinal injuries meant that he no longer had full control of his limbs, and his Chip no longer properly functioned, meaning that he could not connect with a ship’s systems. He created great pilots, he told Steven, so they would be able to do what he could do no longer. When they flew, so too did he.

  And then there was Hague, the human master sergeant, who had been conscripted in the first months of the Illyri Conquest and had remained with the Brigades even after his period of conscription ended. On the day that he graduated from the flight academy, Steven asked Hague why he had stayed, even as he softened into middle age. They were each drinking an illicit beer, brewed by Hague and another sergeant, Guzman, in a closet on the base. The Illyri turned a blind eye to the hidden brewery, and it allowed the sergeants to provide a small celebration for the recruits as they passed out—sometimes literally, because the ale was so strong that it made Steven’s eyes water. He had only drunk one glass, and was already unsteady on his feet. Even Hague, who was used to it, was looking a bit glassy-eyed. It was, Hague admitted, a particularly strong batch of ale. He thought they might have been too heavy-handed with the medicinal alcohol.

  “Why did I stay?” he said, in reply to Steven’s question. “I stayed because I knew more than anyone else about keeping human beings alive in the Brigades. I’m the last of my class. All the rest were killed. Only I lived.”

  He took a deep draft of beer, and swayed slightly in his chair in the aftermath.

  “So I could have gone home, and let the whole damn process start all over again, or I could sign on the dotted line and try to drum into the skulls of ignorant little know-nothings like you how to survive in a universe that was hell-bent on reducing them to corpses, which is what I did. So if you survive your period of conscription, you remember old Haguey, you hear? And when you’re saying your prayers at night, you thank God for sending me to kick you in the arse when you needed it.”

  Hague stretched a huge paw around Steven’s shoulder and pulled him closer, breathing beer fumes all over him, but his face was deeply serious, and his eyes were those of a man who had read the names of too many dead kids.

  “But most of all,” he said, “you look after the weaker ones the way I looked after you, understand? You and your brother, you’re stronger than the rest. He’s starting to realize it, but it’ll take you a bit longer, ’cause you’re that bit younger, but you’re a good ’un. I should know. I’ve seen ’em all—the good, the bad, and the dead.”

  His hand pressed against Steven so firmly that he thought his shoulder might dislocate.

  “But mostly,” Hague concluded, “I’ve seen the soon-to-be dead. Don’t you be adding to their number.”

  He released Steven, drained his glass, and stood up. He straightened his shoulders, adjusted his sleeves, and promptly collapsed unconscious. It took Steven and three of his classmates to carry him back to his bunk. They left him sleeping happily, and did not see him again before they left Coramal.

  Cairus and Hague: without them, Steven knew that he would certainly have been dead by now. The Revenge’s records indicated that the human survivors from all five bases had been taken to Krasis. Krasis was a prison world, and it housed the main contingent of the other human force within the Military: the Punishment Battalions, filled with criminals, hardened Resistance fighters, and whomever among Earth’s people the Illyri had wanted to work into the grave. Few humans survived for long in the Battalions, and Steven and Paul had been lucky to escape being placed in them.

  If Cairus and Hague were still alive, they would be on Krasis, along with the rest of Brigades and whatever remained of the poor sods in the Battalions.

  Steven opened his coms link.

  “Alis?”

  “Yes, Steven.”

  “Course change. I’m about to send you the new coordinates.”

  Alis spoke carefully.

  “Steven, may I remind you that Paul’s orders were to make for Coramal.”

  “Coramal has been destroyed. We’re going to Krasis instead.”

  The pause before Alis replied went on for long enough to speak volumes.

  “Krasis is a prison world,” she said.

  “I know that,” said Steven. “If it wasn’t, then we wouldn’t be able to organize a breakout, would we?”

  “No, I suppose not.”

  Another pause, even longer than the first.

  “We’re just one ship,” she said. “And three crew.”

  “I know,” said Steven. By then he had left the captain’s cabin, walked half the length of the cruiser, and was standing behind Alis. She looked up at him in surprise.

  “Which is why,” Steven continued, “it’s going to be the best prison break ever.”

  CHAPTER 28

  The more time they spent on the Revenge, and the more familiar they became with its capabilities, the more grateful Steven was that they’d ditched the Nomad in favor of it. Apart from its speed and weaponry, it was also equipped with advanced long-range scanners that would allow them to stay out of the way of most other vessels, with the exception of those Corps ships that were as new as their own. Nevertheless, they would remain vulnerable to discovery each time they boosted through a wormhole, as there was no telling what vessels might be waiting on the other side. Still, that was a problem they would deal with when the time came, but to reduce the risks they decided on a roundabout route to Krasis using remote wormholes away from the main Illyri routes.

  Now, sheltered by a moon in a binary system called EC3483, they watched on the scanners as a small squadron of five ships—a destroyer escorted by four cruisers—made its way past them at little more than a stone’s throw in terms of the vastness of this particular galaxy. The Revenge identified it as a Military convoy, which probably explained why it was out here in a quiet system with no Illyri bases: the Military, like the Revenge, was keeping to the back roads of the universe in order to avoid unanticipated confrontations; it wanted to pick its fights. This convoy looked to be making for the Formia wormhole. Alis plotted possible courses for it, and found that two boosts would bring it within striking distance of the Corps communications station at Passienne. The Passienne base wasn’t big, but it would be well defended, for it was a crucial Corps hub, responsible for the maintenance of coms beacons across five systems, as well as receiving and retransmitting the data received from them. If it could be destroyed, the Corps would effectively be blind in those systems, allowing the Military to move more freely through them.

  But its destruction would be a secondary aim. Steven had learned enough from his tutors to understand how important the seizure of a communications hub might be. In war, information was the currency. With the right intelligence, a weaker force could always threaten the stronger. If the Military could capture and hold Passienne, even if only for a short time, it would be privy to all Corps communications until its enemies finally realized that the station was in hostile hands, probably when it failed to respond with the correct security protocols. At that point it would be time for the convoy to run, but not before blowing up the station.

  Of course, the Revenge could have made its presence known to the convoy. It was out of range of the Military’s weapons, and in theory they were all on the same side now. But Steven knew that if the Military captured the Revenge, it would never hand the ship back, and any hopes they had of reaching Krasis, let alone Earth, would be dashed. For the moment, they would have to evade their potential friends just as much as their enemies.
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  “First boost in two hours,” said Alis.

  Steven thanked her, and he and Rizzo set about preparing the Revenge, making sure everything was locked down while running diagnostics checks for any potential weaknesses in the hull. They found none. The time spent doing nothing much at all beside the Derith wormhole had left the ship in pristine condition. It was like a car that had only ever been taken off the showroom floor for test drives.

  By the time the checks were complete, they had arrived at the mouth of the Trimium wormhole. All information indicated that it was stable, so they weren’t expecting a rough boost, but even a smooth boost was mildly unpleasant. They strapped themselves in, and Steven took the controls. Despite all the downsides, he still thrilled to the rush of being at the helm of a vessel while it was boosting. He had never been on a bobsled, or skied downhill at speed, but he imagined that the experience was mildly similar, except without the chance of complete annihilation.

  Steven gave them the count.

  “Preparing to boost in—”

  The wormhole bloomed, but not for them. Instead the prow of a huge carrier breached space, suddenly blocking out the stars.

  Steven heard someone start to scream and swear, and realized it was himself. He wrenched the controls to starboard, and the Revenge shot across the bow of the carrier, so close that they could see faces staring at them from windows. Then they were running along the carrier’s side, its bulk to their left, racing for the Trimium wormhole once more.

  “They’re hailing us,” said Rizzo. “Their systems have identified us as the Gradus. They’ve sent us a security code, and are asking for the correct response.”

  “Ignore them,” Steven replied.

  “It’s a Corps ship,” said Alis. “Systems identify it as the Javin.”

  “I know,” said Steven. The Revenge was near enough to it for him to be able to read its name on the hull, but they were closing on the wormhole. Steven didn’t even bother with the count.

 
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