Dominion, p.18
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       Dominion, p.18

           John Connolly
 

  The earth had a man in its moon, but Illyr had a woman in the greatest of its moons. Influence she had beyond measure, but as for her benevolence, well, who could tell?

  CHAPTER 32

  In truth there were numerous females—thousands of them—on the most famous of the moons above the planet of Illyr, for the gray sphere of Avila Minor housed the Marque, the citadel of the Nairene Sisterhood, filled solely with feminine forms and girlish voices. A male Illyri had never so much as set foot on it, for to do so was against all laws, and the punishment for contravening them was severe.

  Right now Ani Cienda could hear several of the Marque’s females whispering loudly outside her chambers. She glanced away from the picture she held in her hands and frowned toward the door. Honestly, did they not understand that she was trying to rest, and she was most certainly not deaf?

  “The Archmage has given instructions that she is not to be disturbed,” rang one voice, clear and strident.

  That was Cocile, noted Ani, Syrene’s former handmaiden, who was now referred to as the Archmage’s “aide.” Ani had suggested the title when she’d become Syrene’s official scribe, replacing Layne, who had been killed by the Mech, Meia. Even all these years later, Ani could not help but admire the audacity of that damned Mech, for Meia had then taken on Layne’s identity after disposing of her, becoming a spy disguised in a Layne-skin.

  Once Meia’s duplicity was revealed, Syrene was so enraged that all those who served her directly were immediately rounded up and sliced open. Random cuts were inflicted to the arms, the legs, the shoulders, the cheeks, and one unfortunate Half-Sister had even lost most of an ear by panicking and struggling. Syrene’s search for impostors was more than skin-deep: she wanted to see the Sisterhood bleed; she wanted meat and pulsing arteries to convince her that no further Mech impostors hid among her Nairenes. Everybody was a suspect. No one was immune.

  On hearing of Layne’s demise, Ani had hurriedly offered her services as Syrene’s new scribe—and she could be more than a scribe too, she reminded the Archmage, for she was the last of the treasured Gifted, the young Novices who possessed psychic powers, and whom Syrene had been molding into her personal cohort of assassins.

  What they were—and the purposes for which they had been intended—hardly mattered now, though, for they were all dead, with the exception of Ani. As the only Gifted still breathing air, Ani could serve as more than a mere keeper of records, she reminded Syrene; she could be a protector, an ally. Upon hearing this suggestion, Syrene had smiled curiously at Ani, a new light in her eyes, and after several long minutes during which she probed Ani’s mind—and Ani stared back at her meekly, allowing her access, up to a point—the Archmage had reached into the folds of her red robes and produced a blade.

  “Give me your hand, Earth-child,” she said.

  Ani held out her right hand, palm up.

  “Are you right-handed?”

  “Yes, Your Eminence.”

  “Well then, the other one, idiot.”

  Turning her face away, Ani proffered her left and, without ceremony, Syrene swept the blade across the palm. Ani screamed as the skin split open, creating a deep gash of lumpy white flesh and sinew that quickly filled up with blood, spilling over and splashing to the floor.

  “You look real enough to me,” said Syrene. “Cocile, get a medic. And a mop.”

  She turned to Ani again, who was kneeling at her feet, clutching her balled left hand in her unharmed right, tears leaking from her eyes. The Red Witch bent down and whispered into Ani’s ear so that only she could hear.

  “Now, how did you expect to be my scribe with an injured writing hand? Stupid child. Get some rest. You’ll be ordained as a full Sister in the morning.”

  The following day Ani was transferred from the Twelfth Realm to Syrene’s private sanctum in the Fourth, with strict instructions to leave all but her most personal belongings behind, for her new role demanded fresh robes, and brought with it an elevated position in the Nairene hierarchy. From that day forth, everything was kept fragrant and clean for Ani by the white-robed Service Sisters, who held their tongues and lowered their heads in her presence, such was Ani’s new status and influence.

  After the first week, Syrene had waved the blade at her again.

  “Oh, I should cut off both your hands, Earthborn,” she snapped. “Your handwriting is appalling. Is there anything else you’re good for?”

  Ani took a deep breath.

  “Clouding, Your Eminence,” Ani reminded her. “I’m quite good at clouding . . .”

  And as she revealed more of her powers to Syrene, she had cause to write less, and in this way she grew closer to the Archmage, and increasingly valuable to her.

  • • •

  The Archmage now had many aides and scribes, although much of the time she preferred that notes weren’t taken at her meetings. After all, written records could incriminate, especially during a civil war that had now been raging for for more than four years, and still thundered on far beyond the protective walls of the Marque.

  Absently, Ani rubbed her thumb over the thick scar on her left palm, the relic of Syrene’s blade. She had worried at it regularly in those early days, fretting as she tried to find her niche among Syrene’s initially unwelcoming staff, so that the wound had healed lumpy and risen. She had considered getting it fixed, but it had come to represent something more to her, a constant reminder to be vigilant, and even now, as she felt it, her ears remained attuned to the noise outside. That was one thing she’d learned very quickly after her promotion: in the Sanctum, you kept your ears open, especially when it was assumed that you weren’t listening. You always listened, you always watched.

  “May I leave this with you, then, Sister Cocile?” said the voice from outside. “The Archmage will need it to be fitted and altered before her trip.”

  Ani smiled despite her frustration with them, for that was Xela, the nimble-fingered seamstress from the Seventh Realm. Xela was the very Sister who had made Ani’s gown for the Genesis Ball all those years ago, the dress that had tumbled over her shoulders like a waterfall, and had all the young Illyri officers queuing up to dance with her. It was the last truly joyful day that Ani could remember. She felt almost happy at the memory. Almost.

  Lord, I was only sixteen, she thought, just a child. She looked again at the picture in her right hand, an old photograph printed on Kodak paper from Earth. In the image, a male and a female were gazing adoringly at the slight figure who snuggled between them: her parents, Danis and Fian, their arms around their only daughter, the child laughing at the camera, her silver hair thick as a mane, her face open and without secrets. It was a long time ago—in more ways than one—and the picture was crumpled at the edges, and worn from repeated handling.

  Xela’s voice carried through the door, tinged with frustration. Xela was now an aide too, a wardrobe aide, personally responsible for the stitching, laundering, and general maintenance of the Archmage’s vast and elegant wardrobe. When a new gown was required, Xela was entrusted with putting it together under the watchful eye of the chief Nairene designer, Sister Illan.

  “The fitting will have to be done before this evening if we are to make final adjustments in time,” continued the seamstress.

  “Yes, yes, only urgent business,” said Cocile in that imperious way of hers, and Ani knew she’d be waving her hand, wafting Xela away like a fly. Cocile was annoying in the extreme, but she was a matchless gatekeeper.

  “It is urgent,” pressed Xela, not to be stopped.

  “I said—”

  Another voice interrupted Cocile now, softer and shyer, but the quietness forced others to stop and listen.

  “Sister Xela, as soon as the Archmage is available, I promise I’ll run down and fetch you to fit the dress. She shouldn’t be long now.”

  That was Lista, a Service Sister turned handmaiden—a real handmaiden, though, not a metaphor for a bodyguard, like Cocile. Lista helped the Archmage to dress, and ran minor
errands, and sometimes was even permitted to rub the Archmage’s esteemed shoulders after a particularly hard day, or an unusually trying meeting, especially on those occasions when her boss was too weary to make her way to the spa for more formal treatment. Ani liked Lista: the young Sister was trusting, trustworthy, always grateful, and didn’t bear grudges. Such qualities were rare among the Sisterhood. Indeed, Ani suspected that they were rare among the entire Illyri race.

  Yet still, despite Lista’s efforts, the squabbling outside the door continued. Other voices chimed in—Ani recognized those of Toria and Liyal—and Cocile grew more strident, and finally Ani could take no more. She sat up and quickly put away the photo, placing it into a hidden drawer in the cupboard beside her bed, making sure she locked it carefully. Then she placed her feet into the red silken slippers on the floor, pulled her heavily embroidered robe around her, and padded to the door on silent, soft soles. She paused for a moment before she threw it open, startling the small crowd beyond into openmouthed silence.

  “What is going on out here?” she snapped. “I’m trying to rest.”

  As one, they bobbed at the knee, their heads dipping reverentially.

  “Your Eminence!” they cried. “Our sincere apologies.”

  And Archmage Ani nodded curtly at her assembled aides, and the eye tattooed on her cheek seemed to stare deeply into them, even as she turned away.

  PART VIII

  KRASIS

  CHAPTER 33

  The prison moon of Krasis lay close to the Elpia wormhole, one of the first discovered by the Illyri. Its proximity to the wormhole meant that captives could easily be transported to the worlds on which they were needed as laborers, for the Illyri had long believed that keeping inmates locked up was counterproductive.

  This view might almost have seemed enlightened if it weren’t for the formation of the Punishment Battalions, which were composed solely of human prisoners, the ones who had given the Illyri the greatest trouble on Earth. The automatic sentence for any human over the age of sixteen convicted of killing an Illyri—at least for those who weren’t secretly tortured and murdered in reprisal by the Securitats—was exile to the Battalions, for life, but it might as well have been a death penalty. Prisoners in the Battalions were often sent to mining planets, where they worked until they died, or shipped in as frontline forces on hostile worlds, where they helped build Illyri bases while being picked off by the local wildlife.

  Repeat offenders for other crimes—Resistance fighters who had served sentences in Illyri holding facilities on Earth, only to immediately return to the fight as soon as they were released—could also find themselves on a prison transport heading for Krasis. As the Conquest grew more bloody, and the human Resistance more tenacious, the cells on Krasis had begun to fill up with those who might previously have escaped with only a two- or three-year sentence on Earth for their crimes.

  Now Krasis held the last human prisoners, among the sole survivors of their kind, for with the coming of the Others, a death sentence had been passed on their entire species.

  The prison population on Krasis had swollen with the arrival of those humans who had survived the attacks on the Brigade bases, including Coramal. At first, the Brigade troops had been taken to a Corps holding facility elsewhere while it was decided what to do with them, but an attempted breakout, which had almost succeeded in hijacking a Corps freighter, forced the transfer of the humans to Krasis, while the surviving lllyri Military officers were moved to standard Corps prisons.

  But it was one thing for the small contingent of Securitats on Krasis to bully and torment those who had already been weakened by their time in the Battalions, and quite another to attempt the same treatment of battle-hardened fighters from the Brigades. Initially, then, the Brigade soldiers had been kept in a separate facility from the rest, and were fed half rations to break them down. They weren’t forced to work, though, because the factories and labor farms had limited space, and only when workers were killed or injured could others take their place. Meanwhile, the war effort had required the seizure of all nonessential Corps vessels for use against the Military, so prisoners could no longer easily be transported to outlying mining worlds. The survivors of the Brigade massacres just sat in their cells, and tried not to go crazy.

  The noncommissioned officers—the corporals and sergeants—received proper rations, even though most declined the extra food to begin with, fruitlessly demanding that the same be given to their soldiers. Later they realized that this was pointless, and instead took their full rations and did their best to share them with the rest.

  But conditions on Krasis remained wretched, and were about to get much, much worse. An argument had broken out between a prisoner and one of the guards over a stain on his bedding. All cells had to be kept in pristine condition, and inmates were held responsible for any damage or dirt, which could lead to a loss of rations, or a beating, or, for those on punishment duty, an exhausting double shift on a factory floor that might result in injury or death. The prisoner was a Thai Brigade soldier named Suchart. He’d told his comrades that his name meant “born into a good life” in his own language, but whatever kind of life he’d been born into, it had ceased being good a long time before. One of the Securitats had wiped oil from his boot across Suchart’s thin mattress, just for the hell of it, and now another guard was screaming at him and threatening him with a power baton for soiling his cell. Suchart, angry and almost delirious from hunger, pushed his tormentor, and received a series of blasts from the baton for his troubles. Then, as Suchart lay spasming on the floor, the guard had begun kicking him and shrieking in frustration. The guards were as much prisoners on Krasis as the inmates, for it was a miserable posting on a hostile moon, and some, including this one, had been driven to the verge of madness by their surroundings. When the guard finally calmed down, he could not even remember why he had attacked Suchart to start with, and even lifted the Thai from the floor and laid him on his bunk, before informing him that henceforth he was on indefinite lockdown and quarter rations.

  Suchart had remained conscious throughout the beating, and now he lay on his bed and thought about one of the things that the guard had let slip in his ravings.

  “Soon you will all be dead, and then I will be free. No more prisoners! No more Krasis!”

  Using the system of Morse code taps through which the prisoners remained in contact with one another and disseminated information, Suchart passed on what he had heard to the surviving noncommissioned officers who constituted the human authority in the prison. They knew what it meant. They had feared it might be coming.

  “I suspect Krasis is soon to be liquidated,” said Master Sergeant Hague. “They’re going to slaughter us all.”

  CHAPTER 34

  All was quiet on the Revenge. Rizzo was on monitoring duties. Once the course was set, the Revenge would maintain it, warning them only of ships and obstacles and, in the event that it received no response, initiating whatever evasive action the navigation computer deemed necessary.

  It would take them two more boosts to reach Krasis. Not for the first time, Steven was sitting at the ship’s conference table, staring at a revolving hologram of the prison: one hundred guards when fully staffed; seven different holding facilities, all separate from one another but linked to a central core by a series of covered arteries; and two primary landing pads, either one big enough to accommodate the Revenge, and two secondary pads for shuttles. Krasis had a carbon-dioxide-heavy atmosphere: the air was breathable, but only barely, and wouldn’t permit any kind of unsupported exertion. The surface of the moon was barren. It was ugly and inhospitable; even if the cells had been equipped with windows, they wouldn’t have provided much of a view.

  Each holding facility had its own independent life support system, but this would only kick in if the central core were damaged. It meant that if the Revenge targeted the core, which also contained the living environment for the guards, the holding facilities would keep functioning.
<
br />   Huh. Steven tugged at his lower lip, a habit he’d developed as a child whenever he was faced with a problem. In this case, the technicalities of the prison break aside, it was an apparent flaw in the design of the prison. If the core did go down, then the seven holding buildings would be isolated from one another since all the arteries fed to and from the core, like a bicycle wheel without a rim. That couldn’t be right. They had to be connected in some way. Either the blueprints didn’t include some additional walkways aboveground, or they were under the moon’s surface.

  Steven had come up with several ideas for attacking Krasis, none of them very sophisticated, but the issue of the isolation of the holding facilities had been the main stumbling block in each. They didn’t have the numbers to battle the guards on the ground, so seizing the core and opening the holding facilities from there wasn’t an option. If they tried to take one of the blocks, and then use its prisoners to help storm the rest, they faced the problem of having to follow an artery to get back to the core before they could move on to another block. But by then, the guards in the core would simply have sealed off the first block. Ultimately, a system of alternative underground connectors made sense. To rely on their existence was a calculated risk, but one he would probably have to take.

  There! He had made his decision, and he stopped yanking at his lip. They would destroy the core first, and then Rizzo’s sharpshooting skills would come into play. Steven wanted to limit casualties among the prisoners, but at some point they were going to have to blast the walls of the holding facilities. He enlarged the blueprint. Each rectangular block was built to the same specifications, with tiers of cells rising along both sides of its length; catering, ablution, and other prisoner facilities to the left; and guardhouses and security systems to the right. Once the central core was down, they would move in on Block 1 and blast it with targeted pulser fire, which should take out most of the guards without harming any prisoners in their cells. If they were lucky, they’d also disable the security systems, which would open the cells. If they weren’t, Alis would have to go in and access them, as she was the only one of them who could. Steven would go with her, of course, leaving Rizzo to remain with the Revenge. Once the first block was down, they’d move on to the next, this time with whatever prisoners they’d freed as backup, moving slowly across the moon’s surface on foot using the breathing apparatus from the Revenge, accessing each block through the theoretical underground access passages, or just being dropped from the Revenge once the main guard area had been destroyed. Thus, slowly, they’d take Krasis block by block.

 

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