Dominion, p.25
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       Dominion, p.25

           John Connolly
 

  Well, thought Ani, I suppose I could call her Vena the Skunk, but that probably wouldn’t go down well, not here.

  “I need to see your boss, sunshine,” she snapped back. “You know the one, head of all the Securitats?’ Although, thought Ani, I remember her when she was just another uniformed Securitat thug on Earth, and she hates me for that as much as anything else. “How many Venas have you got in this place?”

  The shock on the guard’s face reminded Ani that the words she spoke were coming from Cocile’s lips, not her own.

  “Very well then: get me Grand Marshal Vena,” she conceded snippily. “Please tell her that Cocile, chief aide to the Archmage of the Nairene Sisterhood, is here for her.”

  “You have an appointment?”

  “I am expected,” was all Ani said.

  I’m always expected, she thought to herself; no appointment is ever necessary. The closer I am allowed to get to Vena, the easier she believes it will be to destroy me.

  • • •

  “I see you’re still playing your childish games, Ani Cienda,” said Vena as the Archmage was shown into her office.

  It was a statement, and required no denial or confirmation. For Vena, Ani’s powers weren’t myths or rumors.

  Ani—now once again herself, the silver-haired Archmage of the Sisterhood—merely smirked at Vena. She had history with Vena. Many years before, when she was but a teenager on Earth with fledgling powers, Ani had helped Syl free the Kerr brothers by clouding the minds of their Illyri guards so that they saw Vena, their boss, instead of Syl. Back then this act had made Ani’s nose bleed, and her head had ached for hours afterward, but now her clouding was sharper, clearer, and it was no longer mentally taxing either. Vena had never forgiven her, though, but then Ani figured that Vena probably wasn’t the forgiving kind. Vena could just add it to the list, which also included a suspicion that Ani might have been involved in the death of her lover, Sedulus. Oh, Ani had no illusions about what Vena would have liked to do to her if she had not been protected by her position in the Sisterhood, and knew that, even as Archmage, she was still not entirely immune from the predations of the Securitats. Vena remained the greatest threat to Ani. All of this superficial politeness—if it could even be called that—was just a veneer. Beneath it, Vena hated her and wished her dead, and Ani hated her right back.

  “You’ve changed your hairstyle,” she said, and then laughed out loud at the absurdity of her words, because Vena didn’t have any hair. As was customary, the leader of the Securitats kept her head shaved, and twin streaks were etched above her left ear. The streaks had been silver before, but now they were gold, which is actually what Ani had meant.

  Vena regarded Ani sourly, her eyes hot and yellow as coals blazing from her face.

  “Am I a joke to you?” she asked.

  “I mean the gold,” said Ani. “It’s new. Shiny.”

  For the briefest moment, there was a flicker of something almost like vulnerability in Vena’s countenance. Subtly, she twisted her neck so that she could see herself in the mirror behind Ani. The glass was undoubtedly rigged with every manner of surveillance known on the planet, Ani knew that much at least. She reasoned Dyer could well be watching from his office in Opula. He often was, for Vena invited him like a specter into these meetings, just as she was rumored to invite him into her bedroom. Ani knew how to find out if he was eavesdropping for certain. After all, being intimate with the Gifted back when she was a Novice had taught her a few tricks, and teasing, taunting, and manipulation were precisely what they excelled in. Well, had excelled in, past tense . . .

  “Thank you,” Vena said, though the words sounded strangled, spat like pebbles from one who felt no gratitude for a compliment, as she believed praise to be her due. Watching her, and smiling encouragingly, Ani took her balled hand from her pocket and opened her fingers. Something the size of a mustard seed slipped unseen from her grasp onto the floor and immediately rolled away, searching for darkness.

  Vena looked away from the mirror.

  “Mind you, I didn’t say I liked it,” said Ani slyly, because she couldn’t resist, and preferred it when Vena was riled. But Ani wasn’t finished yet.

  “So has Vice President Dyer seen it yet?” she continued. “Does he like your new golden streaks, at least?”

  “What the hell is that meant to mean?”

  And there it was: Vena glanced at the glass again, now visibly flustered, with worry apparent on her face. She was clearly concerned about who might overhear Ani’s comment, and what they might glean from it. Ani knew only too well that Vena took her new role as head of the Securitats incredibly seriously, and the implication, however vague, that she might have attained her position on any grounds except merit was bound to infuriate her. It helped to know her history, for on Earth Vena’s lover had also been her boss, and there had been whispers of favoritism back then, even though she was actually very good at her job, nepotism or no nepotism. Horribly good, in fact.

  Vena’s concern told her what she needed to know: Dyer was almost certainly listening, and watching.

  “Well, if not to impress somebody, then why?” she asked innocently.

  “Silver makes me think of you, and that rats’ nest of yours,” said Vena, “and I’d rather not.”

  “And yet you must, for here I am.”

  “Why?” asked Vena.

  “Why what?”

  “Why are you here? I’m busy. Some of us are fighting a war, while others are given to sitting on a private moon getting their toes pedicured. Make of that what you will.”

  “Ah yes, the war—are you still battling them in the Southern Quadrant?”

  “What are you talking about? We’ve long since cleared the Southern Quadrant.”

  Ani looked baffled. “But the Quelu wormhole . . . It’s still heavily guarded.”

  Vena sneered. “A ruse. It keeps the enemy at bay while we extract the remaining metal from the mine.”

  “So you do still have an operational mine at Quelu. How much is left?”

  Vena opened her mouth, then stopped short.

  “What are you up to?”

  “What do you mean by that, Grand Marshal?” said Ani. “Are we not all on the same side?’

  “We can only assume that we are, until evidence proves differently.”

  At this, Ani kept her features placid, feigning indifference to what was, by Vena’s standards, an explicit little jab. She knew that Vena’s spies were trying to monitor her movements, but if she was prepared to be so open, she must feel that she was drawing closer to assembling a case against the Archmage. Ani would have to be careful.

  “Indeed we must,” she replied, “and I hope it is true. I merely ask about the mine because my scientists are on the brink of perfecting cost-effective fuel converters for the extraction of massive amounts of latent energy from hitherto unviable metals, on a micro level. Safely, I might add. I imagine even you can understand what that would mean for the furtherance of the Conquest, and your efforts to subdue the renegade forces that insist on thwarting us on every distant front, and stalling our progress. But if you have no further need of Nairene technology, and particularly of this new, unrivaled power source, then I shall consider this conversation to be at an end.”

  Ani wasn’t sure what half of what she said meant, if anything, but she was pretty certain that Vena didn’t know either.

  “You and your games,” said Vena, and her fingers curled at the air, twisting as if they were turning the neck of a rodent. “What has this got to do with mining operations in the Southern Quadrant?”

  “Radioactive elements,” said Ani. “We need radioactive elements, specifically thorium. And that’s what you’re mining in the Southern Quadrant, as far as I know. I need all the remaining stock, as quickly as possible.”

  “All of it?”

  Excellent, thought Ani. Vena’s just confirmed that there is still thorium at the Quelu mine.

  “Well, yes, obviously,” she said.
“Look, if you are struggling to understand me, Vena, I shall go directly to Dyer instead, but I do feel I’ve made myself completely clear . . .” Ani knew she hadn’t, but that was hardly the point. “I don’t doubt he will grasp how important this is,” she added for good measure.

  Vena’s eyes slipped briefly to the mirror once more. The trap snapped shut.

  “I understand perfectly, Archmage. You want the materials, the thorium, so that your scientists can complete these converters. I can’t offer all the Southern Quadrant stock, obviously, but I shall see what we can manage.”

  “Well, as much as you can spare, and then some. At least a container load. But I need it soon. We are at a crucial stage, you understand, for the prototype is wholly unstable. I require a delivery of metals direct to the Marque, fast.”

  “It’ll take months.”

  “I need it within a week.”

  “Not possible”—bargaining was part of the game—“but I can perhaps get it to you by the end of the month.”

  “Excellent. I shall arrange landing clearance for the delivery on the Marque as soon as I receive word from you. Remember, it must be an all-female crew. No Illyri males on Avila Minor. Don’t let us down, for if you do, you will let all Illyr down.”

  It sounded like a slogan to Ani. Maybe Vena could put some version of it on a recruitment poster for the Securitats, with an image of herself pointing a big finger at some unsuspecting bystander. Don’t let the Securitats down, for if you do . . .

  Vena’s lips went thin and tight, and so did her face: the old loathing. It was the downside of her promotion; it forced her to deal with the Illyri whom she most detested in the universe.

  “And I in turn shall be waiting for those converters, Ani Cienda. Archmage Ani. They had better be as good as you say.”

  They stared at each other, a challenge quivering in the air between them. Ani looked away first, but only because she thought it prudent, and Vena nodded ever so slightly in satisfaction. The meeting was clearly over. Now she stood up and ushered Ani to the entrance, steering her away from the mirror, away from Dyer’s ears and eyes. At the door, she leaned forward and pressed her cheek to Ani’s in customary, casual Illyri fashion. From a distance, they might almost have resembled friends.

  “And you understand this,” she murmured directly into Ani’s ear. “I don’t know how you got to where you are. I don’t know how you manipulated Syrene into vacating her post and naming you as her successor. But I’m waiting for the day you slip up, when we all see you for what you really are. And when that day comes, I’ll be ready.”

  Ani glanced at the mirror and then laughed, tossing her hands in the air as if she’d just been told a tremendous joke.

  “I know, and I really do hope Dyer notices your new look,” she said loudly, “because I think it’s terribly sweet how hard you’re trying to impress him.”

  And with a raised eyebrow and a mock-coy wave, she took her leave. She had other meetings to attend, other minds to play with.

  And then she had to return to the Marque, for there was the seed of treachery to crush.

  PART X

  THE END OF KRASIS

  CHAPTER 45

  Krasis was in the hands of its former prisoners, but their captors had not been subdued entirely. Some of the guards in the staff living quarters had managed to get to their respirators as the oxygen was cut off, and they in turn had helped to revive their unconscious colleagues, and fortify the section. They were also armed. Steven had informed them that Krasis had been taken, and gave them the option of surrendering, but nobody thought this anything more than a polite formality. He, Alis, and Rizzo, along with Hague and another sergeant named Vichek, watched on a monitor as a silent argument ensued in the staff quarters—the feed provided images, but no sound—until one of the guards shot up the camera with a pulser.

  “How much air do they have in those respirators?” Alis asked.

  “A couple of hours,” Hague replied.

  “Then we should just leave them in there until it runs out. There’s no point in incurring casualties for no reason.”

  “They won’t wait until it runs out,” said Steven. “We may have the advantage of numbers, but there are thirty Securitats locked in those quarters, all well trained and well armed. They’ll believe themselves more than capable of regaining control of this facility.”

  “The officer is right,” said Vichek. “If I were in the guards’ position, I’d blow the doors and come out firing.”

  With that possibility in mind, Hague and Vichek handpicked twelve men to arm with some of the unlocked pulsers that had been transferred from the Nomad to the Revenge. Steven instructed them to take up positions of cover around the entrance to the guard quarters while the rest of the prisoners moved back to the safety of the connecting arteries. A group had already been sent to the kitchens to secure food, for most of the men were weak from poor rations, and some were close to starving. Now they leaned against the walls of the connectors, devouring everything, stuffing it into their mouths with their fingers while those with medical training tended to the wounded.

  Rizzo was talking over the intercom with a Securitat named Doler, who was the senior officer in the imprisoned group. He appeared to be trying to negotiate terms of surrender, but Steven sensed that it was just a distraction. They were getting ready to counterattack. He was sure of it.

  “Do you know him?” he asked Hague.

  “He’s the acting governor. The old one deserted the sinking ship a few days ago.”

  Alis had already informed Hague and his fellow noncommissioned officers of what she had learned from Reutan about the closure of the facility, and the Securitats’ plans for disposing of the prisoners. What Hague had already suspected was now confirmed, but Steven instructed him to keep the information from the enlisted men. A few Securitats—Reutan among them—had survived the aftermath of the breakout, but they were very lucky to do so with their lives. If the prisoners knew for sure that they had been only days away from an agonizing death, the remaining Securitats would have been killed within seconds.

  Doler was insisting that he and his fellow guards be given a ship to take them from Krasis before they would even consider surrendering. He also wanted to speak to the officer in command.

  “He’ll be asking for a puppy next, and a date with an actress,” Hague continued. “Doler is smart. He’s not the worst of them, but that’s not saying a lot.”

  Doler announced that he was ceasing further negotiation until he could discuss terms with someone more senior than Rizzo, and cut off contact.

  “That’s it,” said Steven. “They’re coming.”

  He raised his hand in warning and saw his men ready themselves. At that moment, the door to the guard quarters exploded outward and heavy pulse blasts struck the central core, the impacts causing debris to rain down and a gantry to collapse. It was the equivalent of suppressive cannon fire, designed to shock and disorient as much as to kill, forcing the enemy to keep their heads down while the ground troops attacked.

  The first of the Securitats emerged, some still wearing their respirators, but they were met not by the anticipated mass of prisoners who could easily be targeted, but by a small force carefully dug in around and above them—a force with teeth.

  The first pulse blasts had killed two of Steven’s men, but the rest were unharmed. They were all young, for the eldest was no more than twenty-five, but they had years of Brigade experience behind them, and had waited a long time for a chance to take a shot at the Illyri—better yet, at Securitats.

  The fight was short, but bloody. The first Securitats were cut down as soon as they appeared, and then four pulse blasts set at full power were directed straight into the guard quarters, creating carnage in the enclosed space. A few sporadic pulse bursts followed from within, but they quickly petered out.

  “Cease fire,” Steven ordered.

  The core immediately went quiet. No one spoke. Even the prisoners in the arteries were
silent. Somewhere deep in the guard quarters, a fire burned.

  A pulse rifle was thrown into the core, then another and another. An Illyri voice said: “We surrender. We’re coming out.”

  Steven’s men held their positions, and kept their weapons trained on the doorway, which was now a ragged round hole in the wall, surrounded by rubble.

  A figure appeared from the murk, supporting another who was bleeding from the belly. Several more Securitats followed, all wounded. The rest, including Doler, were dead.

  From the ranks of the former prisoners rose a ragged cheer. It was over. Krasis was truly theirs.

  • • •

  The remaining Securitats were placed in the same cells that had, until recently, been occupied by their captives. In total, there were only 153 humans left on Krasis, all of them former Brigade troops. The next step was to get them off the moon as quickly as possible, just in case an Illyri ship came to check on how the prison’s decommissioning was progressing. Vichek was given responsibility for organizing the transfer of food and other essentials to the vessels outside, and a steady stream of mechanical lifters moved back and forth between the prison and the landing pads, aided by men in respirators.

  “There are only Brigade troops here. What happened to the men from the Punishment Battalions?” Steven asked. He had been expecting to see more humans than this on Krasis.

  “A few days ago, the Securitats took them from their cells and loaded them into that big transporter outside,” said Hague. “They told the prisoners they were needed for special work. When it returned, the transporter was empty.”

  Steven turned to Alis and Rizzo.

  “Bring Reutan to me.”

  • • •

  It was a much-reduced Reutan who faced Alis and the humans. His uniform was torn, and a nasty cut to his scalp had left his face streaked with blood. He was trying to look as though he wasn’t frightened, but he was failing. Steven gave him water, and called a medic to treat his wound. Reutan relaxed a little.

 
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