Dominion, p.17
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       Dominion, p.17

           John Connolly
 

  “Boosting,” he called, and then they were inside. It was a messy entry because of the angle at which the Revenge had come in, and they bounced around a little at the start, but it was a short boost, and when they emerged they were welcomed by empty space. But the Trimium wormhole wasn’t entirely stable; it had a massive gravitational pull on this side, and Steven had to put all of the Revenge’s thrusters on full to avoid being pulled back into the wormhole.

  The main difficulty was that they had now been spotted. Even though it was a carrier, the Javin was unlikely to be equipped with any craft big or strong enough to follow them through the wormhole. With luck, the Gradus might not yet have been missed, and their failure to respond to the Javin’s hail might be put down to the urgency of avoiding a collision. On the other hand, it wouldn’t take long for the Javin to establish that the Gradus was not where it was supposed to be, and the hunt for them would begin in earnest. Either way, the near miss at the wormhole would have to be reported, either to the station at Passienne, which was the closest Corps base, or via a small transmission drone sent back through the wormhole in the direction of the nearest beacon. If the carrier went to Passienne, it would be a problem for the Military convoy to deal with, but a drone dispatched through the wormhole would be theirs.

  “We’ll wait,” said Steven. “If they send through a drone, we’ll blast it and be on our way. Rizzo, prepare to target.”

  Drones moved fast, and were programmed to follow a nonlinear course in order to avoid just the kind of destruction that Steven intended. He didn’t want one to slip by, forcing them to waste time giving chase.

  The scanners showed no other ships within range, but Steven still didn’t like hanging around at the mouth of the wormhole. He checked the cockpit time display. It wouldn’t take the Javin this long to prepare a drone, which meant that it must have continued on to Passienne.

  He permitted himself to relax, just as the wormhole opened and the Javin began to emerge.

  CHAPTER 29

  They were saved by Steven’s reactions, coupled with the buffeting of the Javin as it exited the wormhole. Steven hit the thrusters as the prow of the Javin reappeared, but he headed toward, not away from, the carrier, and aimed for a spot below its keel. The Javin’s forward scanners had already detected the Revenge’s presence, but its first shots went wide as the big ship tried to recover its equilibrium. By then the Revenge was gliding along the underside of the carrier, where it was heavily armored but less well equipped with weaponry.

  “Shields up!” Steven ordered, but Rizzo was already ahead of him. They both knew that, at this range, the shields wouldn’t be much use against a direct hit, but it was better than remaining entirely undefended.

  Cannon fire ripped past their stern, but Steven was now staying so close to the Javin that its guns couldn’t come around at the correct angle for a clean hit, and also risked self-inflicted wounds if they continued to fire. Steven’s intention was clear to his crew: he was making for the wormhole again, in the hope that they could slip through and start running on the other side. By the time the Javin came around for another boost, the faster, lighter Revenge would have put a lot of space between the two ships.

  But the Javin’s commander was no fool. A silver cloud spewed from the rear of the ship and scattered itself in the Revenge’s path. The Javin was laying mines, cutting them off from a straight route to the wormhole. Steven spun the Revenge and, with no time to right the ship, they returned the way they’d come, but this time upside down, Rizzo doing her best to target the Javin’s weapons as they came.

  “Steven.” It was Alis. “We have to do something before they launch fighters.”

  “I know, I know.”

  It would take the Javin time to ready its fighters. They would have been locked down before the boost, because the last thing a carrier wanted was unsecured fighters rolling around in its bays, but as soon as the Javin was clear of the wormhole, its crew would have begun preparing craft for launch.

  “We have the Cayth torpedoes,” said Steven. Unlike the weapons that had captured the Nomad and the Varcis, the Revenge’s torpedoes had been programmed to activate immediately upon striking a target. Now was the chance to test them.

  “One of them may not be enough to disable a carrier.”

  “But two of them should be. Rizzo, ready torpedoes. Target the engines, understood?”

  “Understood.”

  “On my command.”

  This would be the dangerous part. They’d have to put as much distance as possible between the Revenge and the Javin to ensure they weren’t caught in the torpedoes’ net. It would also mean running ahead of the Javin and then getting above it. Steven didn’t want to risk another skim of its underbelly. By now its gunners would be anticipating the maneuver. Ahead of them was the prow of the Javin. Steven slipped in front of it, then turned to port and darted across the top of the carrier, almost skimming its bridge.

  “Hangar bay doors opening,” Alis warned. “Those fighters are on their way.”

  Steven commenced a near-vertical ascent, and the Revenge shuddered and bounced to the left as a shot hit its starboard side.

  “Damage report,” he called.

  “Minimal,” said Alis. “No hull breach.”

  But that strike was bad news. It meant that the Javin’s gunners now had their measure.

  “The Cayth didn’t give you a range on those torpedoes, by any chance?” Rizzo asked as the force of gravity pushed them back into their chairs.

  “I didn’t think to ask,” Alis replied.

  “You know, in films robots are really logical and stuff.”

  “I’m not a robot.”

  “She’s joking,” shouted Steven, wrenching the Revenge to port. Had he been driving a car, the move would have been accompanied by the screeching of brakes and the smell of burning rubber, just like back in Edinburgh when some likely lads stole a car and amused themselves by performing doughnuts until the police came. The Javin passed beneath them, and they saw the cannon fire tearing through the darkness toward them.

  “Fire!”

  “Torpedoes away,” said Rizzo, and they watched the Cayth weapons fly, leaving a blue blur in their wake.

  Behind it, the first of the fighters was emerging from one of the Javin’s bays.

  “Rizzo.”

  “I see it.”

  She targeted the fighter with their cannon, staying slightly ahead of it so that it flew into the shots and was ripped apart. This was Rizzo in her element. If ever anyone had been born to blow things up, it was Rizzo. By the time the first ship had disintegrated, she had swiveled the guns to target the second, and destroyed it just as it exited, putting that bay out of use until the wreckage had been cleared. It still left the fighters in the other bays—all carriers were fitted with four—but it didn’t look like the Javin had readied any of the others, and by then it was too late for the carrier. It had not attempted any evasive action when confronted with the threat of the torpedoes, probably on the assumption that its shields would be capable of dealing with any threat from one of its own craft, but this was Cayth technology. As before, the torpedoes seemed to explode before they hit their target, but instantly their nets spread, encompassing the lower half of the Javin. The carrier lurched, then slowly stopped moving, but disabling a small craft was a very different matter from disabling a massive ship, especially one that had not had sufficient time to clear the gravitational pull of a wormhole. Without the forward thrust of its engines, the Javin found itself pulled inexorably back toward Trimium. Its forward half started to rise, so that its bow was above its stern, and then its engines struck its own field of mines. A series of explosions erupted along its hull, igniting further blasts deep in the now crippled carrier. By the time the Trimium wormhole took it, the Javin appeared to be almost vertical, and was already on fire along most of its length. Its bow struck the lip of the wormhole, and blossomed into a fireball.

  And then the Javin was no more.

/>   • • •

  An Illyri carrier had a complement of 2,500 officers and enlisted ranks. The Revenge had just annihilated all of them. There was no sense of triumph, though, no sense of relief for Steven, Alis, or even Rizzo. They simply stared dumbly as the wormhole closed on the destruction and loss of life they had wrought, until Steven finally spoke.

  “Resume course,” he said. “We’re done here.”

  CHAPTER 30

  Meia and Thula returned to the Nomad for the final briefing before departure. The Varcis was at last ready, and Paul had decided that it should be Meia’s ship.

  “I asked her if she wanted me to go with her,” said Thula.

  Paul was surprised, and just a little angry. He needed Thula to pilot his ship, for neither he nor Syl had the skills to take control of the Nomad, and he had also grown close to the Zulu. He relied upon him, just as he relied on Syl.

  “She turned me down,” Thula added.

  Paul couldn’t help but let out a deep breath of relief.

  “Story of your life,” he said.

  “I appreciated the gesture,” said Meia.

  “Shot down, and patronized too,” said Syl.

  “You are not helping, lady,” said Thula.

  “It is not necessary for another to join me,” said Meia. “Also, Thula would then have knowledge of the Mech refuge. If we were captured by the Corps, I would be forced to kill him in case he gave away the location under torture.”

  “Maybe it’s better that you’re going alone,” Thula concluded.

  “Yes, maybe it is.”

  The Cayth had promised to upload all that they knew of the Others onto secure servers on the Nomad and Varcis. When Fara and Kal returned—this time popping out of the wall fully formed—they confirmed that the task was complete. In addition, Fara told them, they’d inputted the location of a series of Cayth sentinels, and at least forty new wormholes.

  “And just in case you get taken,” said Kal, “we have ensured that the servers on your craft cannot be accessed by other Illyri vessels, and any attempt to access them without the correct protocols will result in the destruction of the data.”

  He briefed them on the necessary security formalities, and then, with all preparations completed, they were all but ready to leave. They waited a final moment for Meia to run through the controls on the Nomad with Thula, one last time.

  “Take at least a little time to master them before you attempt to enter Derith,” she said. “Just fly around here for a while until you get the hang of it.”

  “I think I’ll need more than a little time,” said Thula, “and aren’t we in one hell of a rush?”

  “Well, dying will not get you where you need to go any faster,” Meia replied archly. “Let me leave before you even attempt to take off, please. I don’t think I could bear to watch.”

  And with that, Meia was ready to depart. They all wished her well, and Syl hugged her close. Meia had saved their lives on more than one occasion. They were more vulnerable without her.

  Paul didn’t think Meia would appreciate a hug from him, and contented himself with a handshake, but Thula had no such inhibitions, and practically lifted the smaller Mech off the ground.

  “Damn, girl,” he grunted. “You’re heavier than you look.”

  “You need to work on your chat-up lines,” Meia replied. “Is it any wonder that women reject you?”

  And then she kissed the big Zulu on the cheek.

  “Now put me down before you damage me.”

  She turned back to Paul, and put her hand on his shoulder.

  “Remember: the Tessel system. If you have to run, that’s where you head for.”

  Meia departed. They watched her go, and Syl and Paul felt more lost than ever before.

  “It will be harder for her now than it was previously,” said Syl, though she could have been speaking about any of them. “She feels more than she used to: fear, loss. Loneliness.”

  “I did offer to go with her,” said Thula.

  “Before she mentioned that part about maybe having to kill you,” said Paul.

  “Yes, before that. In future, I’ll clarify these things before I make such a gesture. Anyway, we’d better get up there. I’ve got some practice flights to make, and I’m damned if you’re all staying here while I do it. No way I’m landing this thing again to pick you up. I’m not a taxi.”

  He lifted his eyes toward the skies around them, and swallowed hard. Paul patted him on the back.

  “I think some practice flights would be a very good idea.”

  • • •

  They said farewell to the Cayth, and Syl heard in her mind the whisper of a billion voices, like waves breaking on a distant shore, but only Fara’s voice sounded in her ear as the older woman-figure embraced the younger for the last time.

  “Remember, Syl,” she said. “Their weakness is their connectedness. They resemble a single great body; the spores are cells, but the larger ones are like limbs and vital organs. The bigger they are, the more crucial they are to the body as a whole. They are not invulnerable. They can be destroyed.”

  “So I must open myself to them,” said Syl, not sure if it was a question or a statement. “Like I did to you.”

  She shuddered at the thought. Exposing herself to the Others would not be like revealing herself to the Cayth. With the Cayth, it was communication. With the Others, it would be contamination.

  Fara pulled away from Syl, and held her by the shoulders.

  “We believe you must, yes, if you are to truly know them, if you are to find their weakness. And they have never faced an opponent like you,” she added, “for I think the universe has never seen anything quite like you. Your mother would be proud of you, Syl Hellais. I am proud of you.”

  Syl nodded. She tried to smile in a final farewell, but it was a twisted thing, so she merely turned away and followed Thula and Paul onto the Nomad, her head low and an ache beneath her breastbone. The door slid closed on the Cayth.

  Thula sat down in the pilot’s chair, blew air pointedly through his lips, and went to start the engines. He looked a little nervous as he did so, and he swore as the Nomad jumped to life.

  “Jeez,” he said as he surveyed the panel before him. “It’s a relief they sent the Nomad back. I’m not sure that I would want to be piloting a craft I’d never even been inside. Remind me to thank that runt brother of yours when we see him again, Paul.”

  “If you thank him, he’ll think the Others have taken over your brain,” said Paul, who was standing near the weapons console. Rizzo had reminded Paul of the finer workings of the system before she left, and he now intended to run through it with Syl, just in case it became necessary for her to take to the guns.

  “Something certainly took over my brain when I agreed to fly this thing,” Thula replied, “but I should remember soon enough; Steven assures me it’s just like riding a bicycle.”

  “A bicycle in space, with guns, and with no training wheels,” said Syl, and Thula turned to look at her, surprised that she was joining in their banter. She was folding a piece of paper tightly, but when she saw he was looking at her, she grinned, and then lifted her hand and deftly skimmed a paper plane in his direction. He caught it, and looked at her oddly.

  “A gift,” she said.

  When he unfolded it, he saw that she’d drawn a large red L on the paper.

  “Your Learner plates,” she announced.

  “I’d have got that without the explanation, thank you very much, Miss Chipper,” Thula said, and he chuckled as he propped it in the window.

  “That’s Mizz Chipper, I’ll have you know.”

  Thula sighed in mock weariness.

  “You ready, guys?” he asked. “Then let’s do this.”

  With a lurch the Nomad uncoupled from the landing pad inside the Cayth ship. Paul staggered over and fell into the copilot’s seat beside Thula, and Syl hurriedly strapped herself in at the weapons console.

  “You know, Meia told me t
hat these things basically fly themselves,” Paul said as they jolted forward again.

  “That’s true,” said Thula, adjusting the thrusters. “Until they fly themselves into something else.”

  “Oh.”

  The bay doors opened before them, and their future was filled with stars.

  “Buckle up, kids,” said Thula. “This is going to be a bumpy ride.”

  But Syl barely heard him. The wormhole was ahead of them. They were returning to worlds that they had once known, but now changed by the years. She thought of her father, and his betrayal of her. She thought of Althea. She thought of the Marque.

  But most of all, she thought of Ani.

  PART VII

  THE ARCHMAGE

  CHAPTER 31

  The passing years had given Peris more than enough time to consider whether he’d done the right thing by fleeing the planet Earth with Danis. At the time, he’d thought that they could somehow find a way to convince Junior Consul Steyr to free them, after which they could join the fight.

  But Steyr made it clear that he had risked enough by helping them to leave the doomed planet, and they should now regard themselves as prisoners of war. On the orders of the Archmage, they had been exiled to a homestead on the moon of Beros; they were captives in a gilded cage, safe but impotent, two pampered political prisoners kept at the Sisterhood’s pleasure and guarded by Securitats, two aging soldiers robbed of duty or cause, overfed, understimulated, and left to live make-believe lives through holograms of places where they had once walked as free beings.

  A quick death would have been better than this lingering one, thought Peris. Perhaps they should have remained on Earth and accepted their fate. Anything had to be better than this slow fading away. Then he thought of the Others, and decided that, no, there were fates worse than this one . . .

  He gazed again at the smaller moon above, satellite to a satellite, one of so many moons he’d stared at over the years. He could never look at a moon now without remembering Earth’s tale of the man in the moon, inspired by the ancient blue shadows that fashioned a benevolent, craggy face, a watchful presence guiding the planet’s waters into tides and eddies, quietly but unstoppably influencing the world below.

 
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