Dominion, p.21
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       Dominion, p.21

           John Connolly

  “I don’t trust her either, which is why we’re monitoring her communications.”

  Lerras sat down in a corner of the guardroom, even though Reutan had not given him permission to do so.

  “It’s stuffy in here,” said Lerras.

  “Then go somewhere else.”

  But Lerras was right. It was growing uncomfortable in the guardroom, even though the door remained open.

  Reutan’s head started to throb. He was also beginning to experience some shortness of breath. He pulled up the oxygen monitor on an adjoining screen, but it was safely in the green zone. Something was very wrong.

  Selec, one of the older prison officers, appeared at the door. He was struggling to breathe, but he still got his message out.

  “First Officer Yallee has locked herself in the coms room,” he said.

  And Reutan realized what was happening.

  “She’s hacked into the system,” he said. “She’s cut off our oxygen. Break that door down!”

  Selec departed. Lerras rose and followed him, but he was staggering by the time he got to the door. Meanwhile Reutan tried to undo the damage that Yallee had done, and restore their oxygen, but the system was telling him that there was no problem with the oxygen, and therefore was blocking his attempts to increase the supply.

  The code being inputted by Yallee vanished, to be replaced by a message that Reutan could read without any difficulty at all. It said:



  Lerras wasn’t quite the fool that Reutan took him for. He might have been a sadist, but the Security Directorate was no place for idiots, and Lerras was gifted with both cunning and a well-developed survival instinct. It was why he had remained close to Reutan, although Reutan was a nasty piece of work, even by the low standards of the Securitats. Reutan’s survival instincts were almost as finely honed as Lerras’s own.

  Before Lerras tried to get to Yallee, he took a detour to the sterilization units and pulled out a handful of respirators. He put one over his own face and tossed another to Selec, who was already on his knees. He scattered the rest in the direction of the guards who were still conscious, but his priority was to get through the door and beat that sweet-faced little Yallee into oblivion. There would be time for questions later, or maybe not.

  Lerras told Selec to blast the door, and that was exactly what Selec did.

  • • •

  Alis had learned a lot during her brief time with Meia. Meia had already been near legendary among the handful of surviving Mechs, even before her experiences on Earth, and she had proven willing to share her knowledge and experience with the younger model.

  She had also shared some of her upgrades.

  There was a loud bang, and the door was blown across the coms room, demolishing the hub of screens. Selec stood framed in the empty doorway, his pulser raised, Lerras to his right. Neither of them had made any effort to protect themselves from fire from within, because Yallee had been unarmed when she entered the facility, and had been given no opportunity to seize a weapon since then.

  Thus it was a surprise to Selec when he experienced a painful blow to his chest, but the surprise only lasted for the seconds that it took him to die. Lerras heard the shot and ducked out of the doorway, but not before taking a hit to his left shoulder that spun him round and sent him sprawling to the floor. He raised his pulser to fire but the coms room was dark, and he could see no signs of movement. He sent a series of random pulses into the room, causing sparks to fly from what remained of the hub, but was just a fraction too slow in reacting to the flare of light that came in response. He felt a searing pain in his right elbow, and when he looked for the source he saw a smoking stump where the rest of his arm used to be. Beyond it lay his forearm and hand, one finger still gripping the trigger of the pulser.

  Lerras’s agony was so great that he didn’t even see the remaining guards fall under Alis’s withering fire, or notice that the doors to the holding cells had opened. Neither did he see Alis toss respirators to the human prisoners, battered but upright, who then made their way back to their ship while Alis restored the oxygen supply. Alarms sounded above his head, and a voice warned that all cell doors in Blocks 1 to 3 had been disarmed, but he barely registered what he was hearing. He reached for his severed arm, and with his left hand tried to work his own fingers from their grip on the pulser. He had almost freed the weapon when a shadow appeared above him, and a boot stamped painfully on his remaining fingers.

  Yallee picked up his pulser and weighed it in her left hand. A hollow tube had erupted from between the second and third knuckles of her right hand. It was aimed at Lerras’s head.

  “You kicked my friend unconscious,” said Alis.

  “Who are you?” Lerras asked, his words muffled by the mask on his face.

  “It doesn’t matter who I am. What matters is who you are, and what you’ve done. I accessed your records, Lerras. You like kicking prisoners. My friend can consider herself lucky that you didn’t kill her, because you’ve killed a lot of others in the past.”

  Alis looked up at the screens on the tower. She watched the liberated inmates battling to take control of their blocks. Some of the prisoners had been hit by pulser fire from guards who, like Lerras, had had the foresight to don respirators, but the sheer weight of human numbers was already overwhelming their captors. To her right, Steven and Rizzo reappeared. They were now armed with pulse rifles. On the screens, a handful of surviving guards were falling behind to the central core down two of the connecting arteries. The third, leading from Block 1, was empty, and Alis saw that the prisoners appeared to be entirely in control of it. Steven and Rizzo took up positions at the mouth of the other two tunnels, and started firing on the retreating Securitats.

  Alis returned her attention to Lerras, who now understood the nature of his opponent.

  “You’re a Mech,” he said. “You’re a damned Mech.”

  “And you’re nothing,” Alis replied. “When you’re gone, no one will even remember your name.”

  “Do it,” said Lerras. His face was contorted in pain. “If you’re going to kill me, just get it over with.”

  “I’m not going to kill you,” said Alis.

  She stepped to one side so that Lerras could see the screens behind her, and the prisoners who were now streaming down the tunnels.

  “They are.”

  The guards in the arteries tried to hold off the prisoners while responding to the pulse fire from the core, but it was an impossible task. The tunnels were straight, and empty of any cover, and Steven and Rizzo picked the Securitats off with ease. Eventually, the guards tossed aside their weapons and raised their hands in surrender, but they were immediately lost beneath the swarm of escaping prisoners. Rizzo and Steven went back to rejoin Alis, and protect her. She might have been a Mech, and on the side of good guys, but she looked like an Illyri, and the Krasis prisoners didn’t appear to be in the mood to make distinctions. Alis, for her part, was under fire from some guards at the top of the tower who had regained consciousness, and who were now fighting for their lives. Steven turned his pulser on them and fired a series of blasts that reduced the upper reaches of the tower to twisted metal and broken glass, and put an end to the shooting.

  Alis patched Steven into the coms system, and his voice sounded throughout the facility as the first prisoners poured into the core.

  “My name is Brigade Pilot Steven Kerr,” he said. “We have seized Krasis on behalf of the Brigades and the Military. Would the officers in command please identify themselves?”

  The rush of prisoners slowed, but Steven could see some of them staring suspiciously at Alis. He heard muttered threats, and knew that their bloodlust was up. He didn’t want to have to shoot anyone, even with only a stun blast. There were easily two hundred men before him. If they turned on their rescuers, it would be a bloodbath.

  “Everybody stay where you are!”

  Even without amplification the voice rang clearly arou
nd the core, honed by years of shouting at recruits on parade grounds and obstacle courses. From the crowd of prisoners emerged the leaner, yet still massive, figure of Master Sergeant Hague. He approached the tower, pausing only to glance at the wounded Lerras.

  “I always knew you’d come to a bad end,” Hague told him, then continued on to where Steven and the others were waiting. He stopped before them, clicked his heels together, and smartly saluted.

  “Sir!” he said, addressing Steven.

  “I don’t outrank you, Sergeant,” Steven said. “I’m not an officer.”

  Despite all that had happened, he was still technically a probationary pilot, with only a private’s rank. If the mission on Torma had gone according to plan, he’d have received his commission as pilot officer immediately after. But of course, Torma hadn’t gone to plan, which was how he’d ended up here, leading a raid on a prison moon. Maybe he should have been keeping a record of his flying hours, just in case. By now he’d have been a pilot officer ten times over.

  Hague leaned forward and whispered confidentially.

  “Well, I won’t tell anyone if you won’t,” he said.

  He straightened again, and stared at a fixed point somewhere over Steven’s left shoulder.

  “Orders, sir?”

  Steven looked at Alis, who shrugged.

  “It appears that you’re in charge,” she said.

  Steven looked around him at the sea of dirty, drawn, expectant faces, so many of them still teenagers, because the Illyri had conscripted only the young and strong. Still, he was more youthful than most of them, but Alis was right: it appeared that he was in charge.

  He stretched himself to his full height, ignoring the aches where he’d so recently taken a beating, and gave his first instruction.

  “Secure the rest of the facility,” he said. “Then let’s find you some decent food.”




  Your Eminence, what a pleasure it is to see you again. You look absolutely ravishing!”

  President Krake moved to embrace Ani, his rubbery lips sliding wet against her ear. Briefly she was engulfed in his sumptuous robes of white and green silk, the colors of the Presidency, and she smelled his heavy fragrance, mixed exclusively for him by the government’s perfumers. It was rich and heady, with a hint of ripe banana, but underneath there was a note of salt and rot, for even the finest perfumes in all the conquered worlds could not hide the odor of Krake himself, seeping out from deep inside. The President was rotten to the core, a Military General who had long ago cast his lot with the Diplomats, exchanging credibility for power, for who would ever be greater or more powerful than the leader of all Illyr, or so Krake had reasoned? The answer was nobody, of course—except the puppet masters pulling his strings, and the quiet choreographers making him dance.

  Still, appearances had to be kept up, so Ani endured his greeting for as long as was polite, and not a second more, before withdrawing. Not to be deterred, Krake put his arm around her, his jeweled fingers snaking beneath the short cape that fell from her shoulders, settling too comfortably onto her waist, pressing unhindered against the scalloped cutout of her dress, the feature of the gown about which Xela had been most enthusiastic.

  “It’s discreet, but so alluring,” Xela had said, “and, as Sister Illan says, you have the neatest figure for it, and the smoothest skin.”

  Ani had lapped up the praise at the time, but she regretted her conceit now that she could feel Krake’s sticky grip on that sliver of exposed flesh. She would have to have a word about that to Xela: no more cutouts, especially when she was due to see Krake. As for herself, she would have to learn not to indulge her vanity.

  “President Krake, you’re too kind,” said Ani, finally putting some distance between her and the President by reaching for the large bouquet of avatis blossoms she’d brought as a gift. She held them before her like a shield.

  “These are but a little token of my esteem,” she added, “grown in the glasshouses of the Marque. The colors are different on Avila Minor. It’s to do with the quality of the ultraviolet light, I am told.”

  She peered at him from between the stems, offering them to him. He looked back at her in disappointment as he took them, his grabbing hands thwarted for the time being.

  “And now let me have a proper look at you, President Krake,” said Ani, her voice like sugar. “Oh my goodness, yes. Life is clearly treating you very well. You appear to be in the finest of health. Have you lost weight?”

  “Why, thank you, Archmage, indeed I have,” Krake said, preening. He was unduly proud of his cinder-block looks and his large, hulking body, which was excessively maintained and curated, if tending a little toward plumpness. If age did not wither him, it was only because he had the very best nutrition, the very best tailor and, naturally, the very best and most discreet surgeon, who tucked the President’s flesh back into place whenever it started to unravel, which was often, Ani knew.

  In fact, Ani knew more about Krake than he could ever have guessed. After all, he was married to the much younger Merida, a member of the Sisterhood. It was a match that had been orchestrated by Syrene a number of years before, back when the easily manipulated Krake’s star was still rising, and his Presidency but a dream. Merida herself was elegant and beautiful, and outwardly demure, but she was also smart and sly. This combination made her a perfect agent for the Sisterhood, and her marriage put her right at the heart of the grand seat of the government in Tannis—palatial Opula—enabling her to stroke Krake’s ego while he laid bare his secrets. Merida might well be Krake’s wife, and mother to his children, but she was a devoted daughter of the Nairenes first and foremost, and it was with them that her loyalties lay.

  Of course, there were others who were useful to Ani, and they assumed many guises. Briefly, she caught the eye of the presidential adviser who stood behind Krake, just to his right, dressed in the gold and black of the Diplomatic Corps.

  Lord Garin.

  His uniform skimmed to his limbs, neatly covering his firm, honeyed skin, hiding his sculpted physique from her sight, if not from her mind. Lord Garin was beautiful, both in uniform and, Ani knew, out of it. He smiled at her now—a naughty, secret smile—but she looked through him impassively, for this morning’s purpose was business. With luck there would be time for pleasure later—pleasure, and the artfully leaked secrets that sometimes followed as Garin expressed his devotion to her. He gave her tidbits, and made her promises, and sometimes begged for her hand in marriage. Ani understood his game, for she was nothing if not practical; it was only natural that he should propose to her, because what ambitious young Lord would not dream of making the most powerful Illyri female of all into his bride, and even more so when she was so sweet-looking into the bargain? Yet she resisted his formal approaches of marriage, suspecting they might not have been offered at all if she had been just another Sister, with no power and no sway. Nevertheless, Garin was a glorious balm, and he did something to her. He did many things to her. Looking at him made her tingle inside.

  “Do tell me, dear Krake,” Ani said, turning her attention back to the President, and secretly enjoying how Garin’s brow furrowed unhappily at the perceived rejection, “how is our beloved Sister Merida? I long to see her.”

  “Then it shall be arranged, Archmage! She is currently in the presidential apartments in the Tree of Lights. Shall I summon her here to greet you? I’m sure she’d be thrilled to pay you her respects in person. You know, I would have invited her to join us at our little luncheon, but I’d hate her to be bored by our business talk, or confused by the more technical details of diplomacy.”

  He laughed as if the thought of Merida understanding anything complicated at all, whether diplomatic details or otherwise, was an amusing one.

  Ani laughed too.

  “Oh no,” she said. “Don’t do that. Don’t disturb her. Perhaps I can see her this afternoon. We can have a little chat, just the two of u
s, in your apartments. A catch-up.”

  Krake was still smiling, but his eyebrows lowered suspiciously. He seemed about to find a way to insinuate himself into this meeting of the Sisterhood—Krake might have been pompous and vain, yet he was not entirely a fool—but Ani leaped in first.

  “And, of course, we’d hate to bore you with our female talk, President,” she added airily. She laughed again, her right hand alighting briefly on his arm as she flirted to distract him. “I know how devoted she is to your comfort, and the care of your household. You won yourself a rare prize with her—as did she, with you—but we on Avila Minor still speak of her fondly, and often.”

  We speak with her too, thought Ani to herself, still smiling as Krake preened some more, smoothing his clothes over his belly and puffing his chest out like a rooster. Only the week before, Merida had been spilling secrets about her husband, overflowing with information about whom he’d been meeting with, and what had been said, in one of the many informal conversations Ani regularly had with the clutch of Nairene Sisters who had been insinuated through marriage into the highest ranks of Illyri society. Syrene had certainly ensured they were placed well: a wife for a general, another for a high-powered bureaucrat; a Nairene here, another there; pretty, polite, elegant, diplomatic, and deeply duplicitous.

  Merida was the most elevated of all, but she was in her thirties now, and bored witless by sharing her life with the blustering figurehead President, attending functions on his arm like a shining, perfectly poised charm while expected to keep her opinions and thoughts to herself. She was but the First Lady, she regularly complained to Ani, and a lady she was expected to be at all times. Her life was lived atop a pedestal, she said, where things were put on display to be admired, but there was nowhere to go from a pedestal except down. If her husband fell from grace—and all politicians eventually make that drop—Merida had no intention of falling with him, hence her continued role as a spy for the Sisterhood, albeit under the new Archmage, Ani Cienda. Even her own offspring weren’t loved and valued as dearly as her Sisters.

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