Dominion, p.19
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       Dominion, p.19

           John Connolly
 

  It could work. It might work.

  He had no idea if it would work.

  Actually, he had a terrible feeling that it probably wouldn’t work, but he’d never needed to attack a prison before, and it was the best plan he had. Not for the first time since they’d come through the Derith wormhole, he wished that his brother were with him.

  He killed the display, and left the table. To his left sat Rizzo with her feet on the main console, staring into space. To his right was Alis. She was lying on her back beside an open engineering panel. A coil of wires fed into her lower back.

  The Mech’s power source was not unlimited. While it had a kinetic element, much like an expensive wristwatch powered by the movement of its wearer’s arm, it did require occasional charging using an induction plate. Alis’s induction plate had been left on the Dendra, the shuttle she had originally been piloting when Steven and Paul first encountered her. There hadn’t been time for her to remove it before the Dendra had to be abandoned, and even if there had been, she’d have been forced to reveal her identity as a Mech as a consequence. Now that her true nature was known, she used an induction coil of her own construction to charge. The process required her to put herself into a form of sleep mode until the charge was complete, although a gentle touch could rouse her from it, like someone having an afternoon doze.

  Steven watched her from the doorway, her chest rising and falling slowly even though she had no lungs, no respiratory system. It was just part of her design, and allowed her to mix with the Illyri she resembled without attracting attention, like all of her generation of Mechs. He wondered what Thula would have said had he seen Alis like this, for she was usually very discreet about charging. Steven never thought that he’d miss Thula, who had always enjoyed baiting him, but he did.

  Steven’s feelings for Alis were complicated. He wasn’t even sure that he fully understood them. He cared for her, and desired her, but he was also aware that she was not like him. Yes, Paul and Syl were not alike either, at least in the sense of being different species—and that was plenty strange enough anyway—but they were the same age, and also completely organic. And while the Illyri lived longer than humans, who knew what kind of life extension medical advances might permit by the time Paul was an old man, assuming that he and Syl stayed together for that long, or weren’t killed in the immediate future, which was a very real possibility.

  But Alis only looked young. She had been in existence for about twice as long as Steven, and it was her programming that caused her to behave like someone much younger. She had explained to Steven that it was adaptive, though, and could be set to age, so she could grow old at a similar pace to the Illyri. In addition, her ProGen skin could also be altered to simulate aging, and she could choose when to die. She could even choose to die when he did, she said.

  Sometimes, when he was alone, or even when he sat silently beside her, Steven tried to imagine a future with her: as he aged and she pretended to, as he grew ill and she stayed well, as his life came to an end and she elected to end hers too. They could never have children, not together, for whatever other physical attributes Alis’s designers might have given her, a womb was not one of them. Oh, they could probably do something with test tubes and donated eggs, but was that what he wanted? Was it what she might want?

  My God, thought Steven, I’m still only a teenager and already I’m mapping out my life. He felt a rush of anger, and his face flushed red. His fists closed as he stood looking down at Alis, but then sadness replaced all other emotions. He was out of his depth, but he’d been out of it ever since the Illyri had captured him and his brother back on Earth, and probably even before that. He thought about waking Alis, but he was afraid of what he might say. Instead he left her where she lay, and went to join Rizzo.

  He did not see Alis’s eyes follow him from the room.

  CHAPTER 35

  Steven didn’t hear Alis return. He just looked up to find her before him. He smiled at her. In preparing for the next boost, and worrying at the prison problem, he had forgotten the complexities of their relationship that had been troubling him. Seeing her now made him feel both guilt for his earlier thoughts and gratitude for her presence. He believed they could work it out. After all, love could find a way, right?

  “You okay?” he asked. He tried to touch her arm affectionately, but she pulled back, and would not meet his eye. Steven put it down to the aftereffects of the charge. The induction coil wasn’t as effective as the plate, and sometimes left Alis with a headache.

  Alis relieved Rizzo, who returned to her weapons station, and then Steven informed them both of his plan for taking Krasis. There was silence while the others took it in.

  “That’s it?” said Rizzo. “That’s got to be the dumbest plan I ever heard.”

  This wasn’t what Steven had been anticipating. Yes, his plan had some holes, but didn’t every plan? Nothing was ever perfect. He opened his mouth to say something to that effect when Alis interjected.

  “There are too many unknowns,” she said. “If there are no connectors between the prison blocks—”

  “There must be,” said Steven. “It’s the only possibility that makes sense.”

  “But they’re not on the blueprints?”

  “No,” he admitted.

  “Then the logical assumption is not that they may exist, but that they may not exist. Also, what will the Securitats in the other blocks be doing while we’re assaulting the core and then Block One?”

  “I don’t—”

  “What if they begin killing prisoners?”

  “I—”

  But Alis was implacable.

  “And what will we do when they begin targeting the Revenge?” she continued. “Because they will. Krasis is moderately defended from attacks from above, based on the assumption that the only parties who might ever want to free humans from it were other humans, and they didn’t have the capability to do so, but that doesn’t mean the guards won’t have heavy weapons in reserve.”

  Steven was gaping at her. He could feel himself reddening again, but this time it was as much in shame as anger. Alis was embarrassing him, belittling him. This wasn’t right! She was supposed to be on his side.

  “These are our lives you’re playing with, Steven,” she said. She fixed him with her gaze like a scientist pinning an insect to a board. “Ours, and those of the prisoners on Krasis. We can’t go in on the basis of your plan.”

  “I’m not playing!” Steven protested, and even to himself he sounded like a whining child, not helped by his voice breaking on the final syllable. “This is the best that I can do.”

  “No, it is not,” said Alis. “Think again.”

  Steven jabbed a finger in her direction.

  “I can order you to follow the plan,” he shouted.

  “You can,” said Alis. “And I will ignore the order.”

  “You can’t do that.”

  “I am a Civilian, and I serve with you of my own will. You have no authority over me. Neither is this a Military mission, nor a Military craft. Come up with a better plan, Steven.”

  She turned her back on him, and resumed the systems check for the boost. Steven remained standing where he was, shaking with anger and humiliation.

  “Why are you doing this?” he asked softly. “Why are you behaving this way?”

  Alis’s fingers stopped moving. He watched her face in the glass. She was looking at him with an expression that he had never seen before, and she was no longer his Alis.

  “Because I am older than you. Because my existence has encompassed too much death and suffering already. Because I am not willing to lay down my life unless the sacrifice has meaning, and has been earned.”

  Her eyes shifted, and her fingers began dancing over pads and keys once again. Steven turned to Rizzo, who shrugged.

  “I told you it was a dumb plan,” she said.

  And Steven stalked away, leaving them alone. Nothing else was said until they heard the door of the captain’
s cabin slam.

  “That was harsh,” said Rizzo.

  “It was necessary.”

  “You could have been gentler.”

  It was a significant reprimand coming from Rizzo, to whom concepts like gentleness seemed entirely alien, but then much about Rizzo was unknowable.

  “Sometimes,” said Alis, “I forget how young he is.”

  “We’re all young.”

  “I’m not.”

  “When my dad was dying—” Rizzo began, and Alis immediately turned her attention to the tough little Italian. As far as she knew, Rizzo had never spoken to anyone of her past.

  “—he told me that he didn’t feel old, not in his head,” she continued. “He said that his body had worn out, but his mind had stayed the same as it ever was. In his head, he was still twenty, he said, but a different kind of twenty. When he was a young twenty, he said, he knew nothing and thought that he knew everything. But he suspected that he didn’t know as much as he thought, and was just afraid to admit it. When he was older, he knew that he didn’t know everything, and wasn’t afraid to admit it, but he also suspected that he knew more than he thought he did.”

  Rizzo put her right hand to her chest, just above her heart. It was an unconscious gesture, but said so much.

  “That always stayed with me,” she said. “I liked to think of him as being young, even at the end. For him, it wasn’t about age, or how you looked. It was about what you were like inside. Being young wasn’t bad. It isn’t bad. I think it’s just about being the right kind of young.”

  “How did he die?” asked Alis.

  “Emphysema. He smoked a lot.”

  “Why do you hate the Illyri so much, Rizzo?”

  Rizzo looked surprised at the question.

  “I don’t hate the Illyri,” she said. “I hate the universe. But it’s too big to destroy, so I just blow up the parts that I can.”

  And now the old, familiar Rizzo was back, and the version whose existence had remained hidden until that moment was locked away again.

  “You need to talk to him,” she told Alis. “We’re going to Krasis, one way or another, and we all need to stick together, so maybe you could try not to break his heart until we’ve done what we have to do.”

  “And my heart?” asked Alis. She could not believe she was speaking this aloud, and to Rizzo of all people. “What about my heart?”

  “You’re a Mech,” Rizzo replied. “You don’t really have a heart. And for all the pain that it brings, you don’t want one anyway.”

  • • •

  Alis regarded Steven through the glass wall of the cabin. He was toying with a stylus, turning it over and over in his right hand. She thought that he might be talking to himself, although she could not hear what he was saying.

  He looked so very young. But then, that was what he was.

  As far as Alis was concerned, what Rizzo had said was interesting but not relevant. Steven was a boy who had been forced by circumstances to behave like a man before he was ready. He had done well, and his actions had contributed to their survival, but it was his skill as a pilot that had saved them. He was maturing, but he was not yet mature.

  She had been engaged in a fantasy, Alis realized. She wanted to understand the nature of her own developing emotions, and to do that she had to test them. Steven had provided an opportunity to do so, to a degree; she could explore affection with him, desire, even love, or some version of it. He had become infatuated with her, and she had been content to facilitate that emotion, even to respond to it in kind. But what was love? Did it develop from other emotions, or was some seed of it present at the start? How could one know what was truly love, and what was not? Until Steven appeared, Alis had not experienced any of the feelings that this young human being inspired in her. Any affection that she felt for Tiray, the Illyri who had protected her, was unaffected by desire. It lacked that component. With Steven, desire was a crucial element. But she was coming to understand that she was not as infatuated with him as he was with her, but instead was excited by her own responses to him, by the unfamiliarity of new emotional experiences. Ultimately, this relationship could only harm them both. Lying on the cabin floor as the induction coil finished its work, and emerging from the charging daze in time to see the look on Steven’s face, she knew this to be true.

  And yet there were aspects of what she felt that she could not define. Emotions were slippery things.

  Alis did not bother knocking on the door. They were long past that. She just opened it and stepped through.

  “I am sorry,” she said.

  He didn’t reply. His eyes were red. If he had not been crying, the effort not to do so had left its mark.

  “I’m sorry for everything,” she continued. “What I said out there was true, but my reasons for saying it were . . . not what they seemed. I was angry. I was sad. My feelings for you are complex. I don’t fully understand them—I just know that we can’t go on as we are. I wanted to believe that I could be like you, but I cannot, and I think you understand this. I do love you, if love is to like, and admire, and trust. But the rest—it has no future, and will only bring us both pain. I do not want to cause you pain, Steven. I do not want you to cause me pain.”

  Now he was crying. Alis wished that she could cry, but it was not part of her design.

  “You are an extraordinary being, Steven, and you will only become greater,” she said. “I would not have come with you otherwise. I would not have let you take me in your arms. If it is your belief that your plan for the attack on Krasis will succeed, then I will stand alongside you without objection. And if it should be that I die in the attempt, then I will do so gladly if we are together.”

  She paused.

  “But I really would prefer not to die.”

  Even as he was crying, Steven had to laugh. It came out as a sputter, and he sprayed tears and spit and snot on the desk. He wiped his face with his hands. He was still sobbing, but she could hear that he was calming down.

  “And I suppose,” he said, “that you have a better plan?”

  “I may.”

  “Well, if you’ll give me a minute or two, I’ll come to the main cabin and you can share it with Rizzo and me.”

  “I will wait for you there.”

  He looked up at her.

  “Thank you,” he said.

  “It’s no trouble to wait.”

  He laughed again.

  “No, thank you. For what you said. For all of it. For being with me.”

  “I am still with you,” she said.

  “Yes.”

  But not as before. It hurt now, but it would be all right. They would make it so.

  CHAPTER 36

  Steven listened to Alis’s plan. There was something familiar about it. He just couldn’t remember what it was.

  “You have to admit that it’s better than yours,” said Rizzo.

  And then it came to him.

  “That’s because it’s from Star Wars!” he said.

  “I have no idea what that is,” said Alis.

  “My God,” said Steven, “we’re in Star Wars.”

  “I still have no idea what that is,” said Alis.

  “I don’t know what he’s talking about either,” said Rizzo.

  “Oh, come on,” said Steven. “You must have seen Star Wars. Everyone’s seen Star Wars.”

  “Alis hasn’t. And of course I’ve heard of it, but I haven’t watched it.”

  “Alis isn’t from Earth. She has an excuse. You don’t.”

  “I never liked science fiction,” said Rizzo. “It’s kind of male, and not in a good way.”

  Steven gaped at her.

  “You’re flying a spaceship stolen from an alien race. You’re actually in science fiction.”

  “I still don’t like it.”

  Good grief, thought Steven. Alis tapped him on the shoulder.

  “Please—what is Star Wars?”

  And he tried to explain as the next of the wormholes loo
med.

  CHAPTER 37

  The boosts went as well as boosts can go, and then they had their first sighting of Krasis, the prison world.

  “Pure luxury,” said Rizzo, and she sniggered, for the moon ahead of them was a sad, gray thing, the most remote of seven satellites orbiting a gas giant named Tener. However, by the standards of its sister moons, and Tener itself, Krasis probably counted as a paradise.

  The Krasis scanners picked up their presence as soon as they emerged from the wormhole.

  “Krasis calling the Gradus. Respond please.”

  Alis opened the channels, both audio and visual. The head of a Securitat functionary appeared before her.

  “Identify yourself.”

  “First Officer Yallee responding,” she replied. She’d run a check on the Gradus’s crew manifest, and decided that Yallee was the one whom she most closely resembled.

  “I am Lieutenant Reutan, duty officer at the Krasis Incarceration Complex. Your boost was not scheduled, and this is a secure facility.”

  “I understand, Lieutenant, but this is an emergency. We were engaged in a firefight with an unknown vessel. They attempted to board us; in the ensuing battle a dock breach occurred. Both attackers and defenders suffered serious casualties. I lost all of my crew, including the commander, but I succeeded in capturing two of the humans who attempted to seize our ship.”

 
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