Dominion, p.2
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       Dominion, p.2

           John Connolly
 

  “Steven, hard to port, then come around. Rizzo, prepare to engage. The Diplomat ship is closer, so that’s your first target. All weapons.”

  And then Paul turned to Syl.

  “Don’t ever do that again,” he said softly. “Not for any reason. Do you understand? I am in command of this ship and its crew, not you.”

  Syl seemed about to argue with him, then saw the fury on his face. She nodded, and looked away, but her eyes were like red-hot coals.

  Yet even as the Nomad began to move, its engines gave a deep sigh, and died.

  CHAPTER 3

  They didn’t panic. Later, that would be what Paul remembered most clearly about those first seconds after the engines failed, and he was hugely proud of his crew for the way they responded. Rizzo, Thula, Meia, Steven, Alis—each contributed to the diagnostics check, trying to determine the source of the failure. They worked fast, constantly communicating with one another, each telling the others what had been done and what was about to be done.

  And all the time Paul watched as the Corps pursuit ship came around in a fast arc to bring them into its sights.

  It was Meia who came to the correct conclusion before the others.

  “Our systems have been targeted,” she said. “We’ve lost propulsion, weapons, and navigation, but life support and ancillary power are untouched. We’ve been carefully disabled.”

  Paul looked past the cockpit screens to the sphere, which had slowed its approach and commenced a lazy orbit of the Nomad. Beyond it waited the alien vessel.

  “That won’t be much consolation when we’re dead,” said Thula, who was tracking the Corps ship.

  “We’re in their sights,” said Steven. On the cockpit screen, the Corps vessel turned from green to red.

  “They’re firing!” said Rizzo.

  And they were. From the underside of the pursuit ship appeared two balls of light: torpedoes. The Nomad’s computer instantly calculated their trajectory, and offered a series of avoidance measures for the pilots to take, none of them applicable for a ship that had no engines upon which to call.

  The torpedoes exploded, but long before they had gotten anywhere near the Nomad. Paul and the others watched the blasts ripple in a convex shape and disperse, as though the missiles had been fired from inside a great bubble, and their power had failed to breach it. Immediately after the explosions, the pursuit ship gave a lurch and lost all momentum. It too had been crippled by an outside agency, apparently completely immobilized, and nobody had to look very far to figure out just what that agency might be.

  A series of thuds came from the body of the Nomad.

  “What is that?” asked Paul.

  “The thing circling us has fired a number of devices,” said Steven. “They’ve attached themselves to our hull.”

  Meia turned to look at Paul.

  “We’re being scanned,” she said. “My CPU has detected it.”

  “She’s right,” said Alis. “They’re moving through all non-organic systems.”

  “But this ship is immune to scans,” said Paul.

  “Not any longer,” said Meia.

  “It’s not only non-organics,” cut in Syl. “I can sense them examining me too.”

  It was an odd feeling, and she could only compare it to a kind of caress. It was intrusive, but not entirely unpleasant. She closed her mind to the probing, just in case, but she believed the scan to be physical, and not in any way attuned to psychic activity.

  “I don’t feel anything,” said Thula.

  Suddenly there appeared before him an image of his own body, skinless but identifiable by the shape of his nose, which had been broken so often when he was a boy as to be highly distinctive. Thula could see his lungs pumping, his heart beating, even the twitch of individual muscles. Then the image was magnified rapidly, until within seconds Thula was staring into the deepest workings of his brain, watching as synapses flared.

  He risked a quick glance away, and saw that all of the others were also staring at maps of their bodies in varying stages of magnification. Only three were different from the rest. The brief glimpse that Thula got of Meia’s insides was much like Alis’s, and showed pale tubes and hints of circuitry, alongside unidentifiable organs that were part mechanical and part laboratory-grown flesh. When the scan reached Meia’s brain, the patterns revealed were more regimented than his, and the paths taken by the electrical pulses more ordered. He wasn’t entirely surprised. He’d never considered himself particularly logical.

  Then there was Syl. Her brain scan showed nothing—nothing at all. It was like looking at a ball of dough. A scan of a dead person’s brain would probably have revealed something similar.

  The projections vanished and the Nomad’s lights began to flicker on and off. The food processors and heaters powered up, then just as quickly ceased to function. The chemical toilet flushed. Doors opened and closed of their own volition.

  “They’re deep in our circuitry,” said Meia.

  “Why?” asked Paul.

  He saw Meia discreetly plug herself into the Nomad’s systems.

  “Careful, Meia,” he said.

  Meia jolted as she connected with the ship’s computer, but she quickly recovered herself. Her eyes danced in their sockets, flicking back and forth, up and down, following code unseen by the rest of them.

  “They’re searching,” said Meia.

  “For what?”

  “Contamination. It’s extraordinary. This is scanning on a subatomic level. We have nothing like it. It’s—”

  Meia spasmed, and her head began to shake uncontrollably. Her hands opened and closed repeatedly, and then the shaking spread to her entire body.

  “What the hell?” said Rizzo.

  It was Paul who acted first, yanking the connector from Meia’s arm and breaking the link with the ship. Meia flopped in her seat. A trickle of white fluid mixed with red leaked from her mouth where she had bitten deep into her artificial flesh. Alis moved from the copilot’s seat to examine her.

  “Meia?”

  Meia’s lips moved. She reached up with her left hand to wipe the mixture of ProGen blood and Mech plasma from her mouth. She looked embarrassed at the sight of it.

  “I’m okay,” she said.

  “What happened?” asked Paul.

  “They didn’t like me looking over their shoulder while they went about their business,” said Meia.

  “Did you pick up any hint of who or what they are?”

  “No.”

  “They are many,” said Syl.

  They all looked to her. She was fiddling absently with the scruffy brown locket she wore around her neck on a strip of leather.

  “That’s all I know,” said Syl, pulling the amulet backward and forward on its string. “I’ve heard them. There are billions on that ship.”

  “How is that possible?” asked Rizzo. “It’s big, but it’s not that big.”

  “I don’t know,” said Syl. “But it’s the truth.”

  Nobody argued with her. Already they knew better than to do that.

  Around them, the Nomad began to hum as its engines powered up again. Seconds later, they felt it begin to move. Paul turned to his brother questioningly.

  “It’s not us,” said Steven. “I didn’t touch anything.”

  “We’re not in control,” said Meia. “They’re bringing us in.”

  “What about the Corps ship?”

  Steven examined the screens.

  “No sign of movement there. It looks like it’s staying where it is, for now.”

  Paul walked to one of starboard windows. He could see the other vessel as a shard of silver hanging in space. And then, as he stared at it, a mesh began to appear, so fine that, for a moment, he thought that it was an imperfection on the glass. It slowly extended until it surrounded their pursuers in a honeycombed oval.

  Thula joined him at the window.

  “It doesn’t look like we have the same thing around us,” he said. “No, it doesn’t.”
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  “Do you think that’s good or bad news?”

  “Relatively speaking,” said Paul, “it’s probably good. In reality, though, this is all bad news.”

  “When do you think we might start getting some good news?” asked Thula.

  “Not anytime soon.”

  Thula considered this.

  “I hate space,” he said at last. “And I reckon space hates me right back.”

  CHAPTER 4

  It would not be true to say that Paul was feeling optimistic, exactly, but a situation that had seemed desperate only minutes earlier was now starting to feel just slightly less terminal. Admittedly, they were being dragged toward a massive alien ship that had taken control of their little craft, but the recent alternative outcomes had included being destroyed by their unknown captors or being blown to pieces by the pursuing Corps vessel. The fact that they were still alive was something.

  He watched the Corps ship growing smaller and smaller behind them. He realized that he had never seen the faces of those who had followed them into the Derith wormhole, intent upon the Nomad’s annihilation until they all found themselves at the mercy of a greater power. So far his crew had destroyed four of their pursuers’ vessels, including the massive cruiser that had followed them to the Archaeon system, but the only direct contact with their enemies had occurred right at the start, in orbit around the planet Torma. There he and the others had engaged in bloody combat with Illyri who had been stripped of all identifying marks, even down to the chips in their skulls. Paul believed them to be allied to the Corps—probably Securitats, the security police who did most of the Corps’ dirty work.

  But back then these killers had been hiding themselves, disguising their advanced craft as rust buckets held together with scavenged parts, just as they had discarded any uniforms or insignia before commencing their assault. Now they had emerged from concealment: their ships were no longer flying under false colors, and they had attacked and destroyed Melos, the most important Military base in the Illyr system. If this was the work of the Corps, then civil war had surely broken out in the Illyri Empire. Paul just wanted to know for sure.

  Alis had already tried contacting the alien ship, but to no avail. Now Paul asked her to open a channel to the Illyri vessel trapped in the alien net.

  “This is the Nomad,” said Alis. “Calling unknown vessel off our stern. Identify yourself.”

  There was no reply. Paul took over from her.

  “This is Lieutenant Paul Kerr of the Military Brigade vessel Nomad,” he said. “Requesting formal identification of unknown Illyri craft, and confirmation of mission.”

  Now came contact, but it was not verbal. Two Illyri words, transmitted by the other ship, appeared on the cockpit screen. Paul’s Illyri was good enough to be able to understand the message, helped by the fact that it wasn’t very long, but he wasn’t sure if the other humans on board were fluent enough to translate it. Alis looked at Paul enquiringly, and he nodded.

  “Sir, the message reads ‘Mission: Destroy.’ That is all.”

  “Well, that was helpful,” said Thula. “I’m glad we could clear it up.”

  “They’re not very talkative, are they?” said Rizzo.

  “I think they still believe there might be a way out of this for them,” said Paul. “If I was their captain, right now I’d be trying to reroute the ship’s systems away from the central computer, and put as much of them under manual control as possible. Then as soon as that net, or whatever it is, comes down, I’d make a break for the wormhole.”

  “So why aren’t we doing the same thing?” asked Thula.

  “Because it has no hope of succeeding,” said Paul. “And also, I want to meet whatever is in that big alien ship.”

  “I’m guessing aliens,” said Thula. “Maybe big ones.”

  “See?” said Paul. “You’re already becoming quite the expert.”

  “You think they might be friendly?” Rizzo asked Paul.

  “They haven’t killed us yet.”

  “But nothing that entered this wormhole has ever come out again. Now I think we know why.”

  “You see all the things you’re finding out?” said Thula to Rizzo. “Bet you’re glad you came now.”

  Rizzo threw a clipboard at him, but Paul didn’t notice. He realized that Syl had been quiet for a long time. He saw that she was standing close to the starboard hull, her right hand braced against it.

  “Alis,” said Paul. “Give me a view of our hull.”

  Alis brought up the outline of the Nomad on the screen. It showed four raised bumps where the alien scanners had locked on to the exterior. Syl’s right palm was directly beneath one of them.

  “Syl?” he asked.

  Syl lifted her free hand, signaling him to be quiet. Paul found the gesture more bemusing than irritating. He wondered if he should simply surrender his authority to her and go back to being a grunt. It would certainly make life a lot easier, and he’d have someone to blame when everything went wrong. He moved to her side, standing close but, as before, not touching her.

  Syl risked another mental exploration, reaching out to the alien ship ahead of them as the Nomad drew closer and closer to it. She did so cautiously, for the intense babble of voices she’d encountered the first time had been immensely painful to hear, like suddenly finding oneself plugged without warning into the speakers at a particularly loud rock concert. Now those voices were silent, but Syl was aware of a great presence in the ship beyond, as though untold numbers of beings were holding their breath in the vessel’s depths.

  “They’re listening,” she whispered.

  “Can they understand us?” asked Paul.

  Syl detected a flutter, a slight change in the nature of the silence, an involuntary mass response to Paul’s question.

  “Yes.”

  “What do you feel from them, Syl? Hostility? Anger?”

  Carefully, Syl probed. She had never attempted anything like this before, or certainly not on this kind of scale. Yes, she had manipulated the consciousness of individuals, even their actions. In turn, others in the Nairene Sisterhood had tried to enter her mind, mostly unsuccessfully. This was different, yet even as she roamed, a part of her stood to one side, marveling at her own powers. They were growing so fast, yet she was beginning to understand that they had always been there, and were as much a part of her as the color of her eyes and the texture of her skin. Only now was she really exploring her own capacities, her own limits.

  If there were any limits.

  She pushed those thoughts away, and concentrated instead on what she was sensing. It was like being blind, and exploring only by touch, yet the touch brought to her shapes, and the shapes were sounds and feelings.

  “Curiosity,” she said.

  “About?”

  Syl turned to him, but barely saw him. He was a shadow Paul.

  “You,” she said to him.

  “Me?”

  “They’ve seen you before.”

  “That’s not possible.”

  “Yet it’s true.” She looked away from him. “There is also fear.”

  “Of what?”

  With a small squeal of alarm, Syl yanked her hand away from the hull, as though it had suddenly become hot to the touch. She smiled weakly at Meia, who had been watching quietly from the other side of their craft.

  “I think they just did to me what they did to Meia earlier,” she said.

  “They’ll only tolerate a certain amount of interest,” said Meia.

  “Yes.”

  With a twitch of her head, Meia indicated to Paul and Syl that they should follow her to the rear of the Nomad, where they could not be overheard by the others—or monitored by whatever else might be listening through the hull. Meia found a pen and paper, and began to write.

  You’re becoming stronger, Syl.

  Syl shrugged, but did not disagree.

  What you just did back there—did you learn it on the Marque?

  Syl found a pen of her o
wn, and wrote beneath Meia’s question.

  No. I don’t think so. It’s new. I have a sense that it’s linked to the wormhole, but I can’t say why.

  You probably shouldn’t have used that power here.

  Why?

  Because now they know what you can do.

  Syl’s pen remained poised above the paper for a second or two before she wrote:

  Nobody knows what I can do.

  With that, she put down the pen and walked away.

  CHAPTER 5

  Syl retreated to the rearmost seat in the main cabin, far away from the cockpit. She ignored Thula’s raised eyebrow—it was unusual for Paul to exclude him from any discussions, and he was clearly interested to know what might have been discussed—and Rizzo’s indifferent gaze. Steven and Alis were running a diagnostic check on the Nomad’s systems in an effort to find out if the alien incursion had left any nasty bugs in the ship’s computer, so they were otherwise distracted.

  The unknown ship hung before them. Syl was tempted to try to explore it again. It was as if a greater consciousness was willing her on, and she understood that something on the other vessel was as curious about her as she and the others were about it. But there was a risk involved, because to explore she had to open herself up, and that left her vulnerable. She could not examine without being examined in turn. About that much, at least, Meia and Paul had been correct.

  Nevertheless, Syl was furious at them for interfering, and for treating her like some kind of child. They didn’t understand what was happening to her, or how she was growing and changing; they didn’t realize that she was only beginning to tap her new potential. But then again, how could they, when Syl herself didn’t entirely understand what was happening either, and a small but very real part of her was absolutely terrified by the increase in her powers. She found herself again holding on to the little amulet that hung around her neck, the little item of jewelry that had once belonged to Elda—sad Elda, brave Elda, dead Elda—and from which she now drew a kind of consolation. Back on the Marque, the home of the Sisterhood, Elda had been seen as little more than a drudge, but ultimately she had been so much more—a spy, a freedom fighter—and her discovery had led to her inevitable death at the hands of the Gifted, Syrene’s most vicious Novices, which made her a martyr too.

 
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