Dominion, p.26
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       Dominion, p.26

           John Connolly
 

  “Tell me about the transporter,” said Steven, “the one that took the Battalion prisoners away.”

  And Reutan stopped relaxing.

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “You don’t know about the removal of a section of your prison population in recent days?” said Steven. “But you were the officer on duty when we arrived. Are you telling me that a senior Securitat at a prison facility doesn’t know where half of his prisoners have gone? If that’s true, Reutan, then you’re no good to me.”

  He gestured to Rizzo.

  “Put him back in his cell. Try to find one with a window, so he can watch us leave.”

  It was the perfect response, and it achieved the desired reaction.

  “No!” said Reutan. “I know about the transporter, but it was nothing to do with me. Maril, the old prison governor, gave the order before he left, and Doler carried it out.”

  Steven saw Hague give the slightest shake of his head. Whoever had been responsible, it was not Doler.

  “What order?” said Steven.

  “They were killers,” said Reutan. “They had murdered Illyri.”

  “What. Order?” Steven repeated slowly.

  Reutan caved.

  “That the remaining Battalion prisoners should be taken into orbit and thrown from the airlocks,” he said. “I tried to talk my superiors out of it, but Doler wouldn’t listen. He said they’d killed Illyri, so they should never have been allowed to live in the first place, and that he was tired of feeding them valuable rations. He said it was time to give them a taste of real Illyri justice.”

  He stared at the floor, unwilling to meet the eyes of his interrogators.

  Steven struggled for a suitable reply. He could barely keep himself from attacking Reutan. He thought of the final moments of the young men on the transporter, the terror they must have felt as they realized what was about to happen.

  “Alis,” he said. “Please access the flight records for the transporter.”

  Alis remained remotely linked to the prison’s central operating system following her initial incursion. She had the information instantly.

  “Velder Sel,” she said. “Taber-class transporter. Mission: permanent prisoner transfer. Crew: six. Additional personnel, prisoner transfer: twenty. Officer commanding: Solan Reutan.”

  “That’s not true,” said Reutan. “There’s been a mistake!”

  Alis ignored him.

  “Second in command: Talder Lerras. Prisoner count on departure: one hundred thirty-two. Prisoner count on return—”

  Alis paused for a moment.

  “Zero.”

  Reutan made an attempt to flee, but there was nowhere for him to go. Hague and Rizzo held him.

  “There’s one other detail,” said Alis.

  “What is it?” asked Steven.

  “The mission was voluntary.”

  “My God,” said Rizzo. “They volunteered to kill them?”

  “Doler did it! “ Reutan said. “He changed the records to hide his involvement. You have to believe me. I wouldn’t do something like that. I’m not a killer. Ask Lerras. He’ll tell you. We weren’t on the Velder Sel.”

  “Lerras is dead,” said Steven. “He died from blood loss and shock an hour ago. It looks like it’s just you.”

  “No, you must—”

  “Take him back to his cell,” said Steven, and Reutan was hauled away by Rizzo and Alis, leaving Steven alone with Hague.

  “They were our people,” said Hague. He looked older than his years, and Steven saw that there was white in the stubble on his chin.

  “I know.”

  “Every Securitat in this place knew what was going to happen to those prisoners. They’re all responsible.”

  “Indirectly, maybe,” said Steven, “but those who gave the order and carried it out are the criminals.”

  “Maybe you’re right, but you can’t keep this quiet. The men already suspect. They’ll want justice. Someone has to answer for what was done.”

  “Someone will.”

  Alis returned. Steven told her to retrieve the names of all Securitats who had been on the Velder Sel when the prisoners were killed, and compare them with the list of survivors. When she returned, she had five names for him.

  Steven wanted to throw up. His hands were trembling. He clasped them before him to hide the shaking. He felt like he was in a car that was careering out of control down a steep hill, and he could do nothing to stop it, but perhaps he was only lying to himself to make it easier.

  Yet nothing could make it easier.

  “I knew many of them,” said Hague. “I knew their names. I knew the names of their families, their girlfriends. I want to do this. I’m volunteering, just like the Securitats did.”

  And Steven found that he could only nod dumbly.

  • • •

  All work stopped as the shuttle ascended. The men watched it go, and then it was lost from view. It had six humans on board, and five of the Securitats.

  When it returned, the Securitats were gone.

  CHAPTER 46

  The final evacuation of Krasis was about to begin. Steven discussed with Hague and Vichek the nature of their mission to Earth, and Hague suggested to him that he should talk to the freed soldiers and explain what might have befallen their homeworld. Steven did so, as best he could, but he made sure that the remaining Securitats were safely under lock and key and guarded by men he could trust before he shared what he knew with the rest of them. He was afraid that the Securitats would be torn apart otherwise, even though Alis had scanned each of them—including, before their final shuttle trip, the late Reutan and his fellow volunteers—and found no trace of the Others among them.

  The telling of the tale was horrible, but then how could it be otherwise? Once the commotion and shouting had died down, Steven informed the men that, of the ships captured with the prison, only the cruiser was fast enough to be able to keep pace with the Revenge. Between them, the two vessels could probably accommodate a force of fifty to sixty men, but that was as large a contingent as they would be able to take to Earth. For the others, the Velder Sel and the smaller vessels would have to suffice, but he had other plans for the remaining Brigade troops following the evacuation. He told them of the Military convoy they had seen, and advised them to make their way toward Passienne and try to link up with it. If they encountered a Corps vessel, they could either attempt to outrun it—which, in a big, slow transporter would be difficult—or seize it.

  The latter would require convincing the other ship that the Velder Sel and its escort craft were crewed by Securitats, but Alis gave them some help in that regard by ensuring that the three ships were supplied with the most recent security protocols and all necessary codes and call signs. She also disabled the visual imaging systems on all three ships so that any curious Illyri would not be able to see the crew. Thankfully, six or seven of the men spoke Illyri well enough to be able to pull off the deception, if required, and they had five pilots among them.

  “What do we do with the ship once we’ve seized it, sir?” asked one of the men.

  “If it’s better than yours, you keep it,” Steven replied. “If it’s worse, then destroy it.” He recalled a word from his childhood reading. “Consider yourself privateers.”

  “Private-what?” asked the same man, to some laughter.

  “It’s a polite way of saying ‘pirates,’ but with a mission to attack enemy shipping,” Steven explained. “For better or worse, in this fight you’ll have to side with the Military. Most of them may not like Brigade troops very much, but at least they won’t try to kill you, and they need all the help they can get.”

  The prospect of attacking more Illyri Diplomats and Securitats pleased the troops. Anything was better than Krasis, even war against superior opposition. Vichek asked for permission to lead the privateers, which Steven granted. He gave Rizzo command of the second cruiser, the Ilfen, which would join the Revenge, and which Rizzo im
mediately renamed the Marauder. She would be assisted by the last of the sergeants, an Italian named Agostino whose family, as it turned out, came from Calabria, the same region of Italy from which Rizzo’s family had immigrated to the United States a generation before. It was a match made in heaven.

  • • •

  Alis found Steven in his cabin, immersed in the final checks and preparations.

  “Are you okay?” she asked him.

  He knew what she was talking about. She had seen the look on his face when the shuttle had returned following the execution of the Securitats.

  “I’m trying not to think about it,” he replied.

  He ceased what he was doing.

  “I could have stopped it,” he said.

  “Could you?”

  “I could have ordered them to leave Reutan and the others alive.”

  “You could have tried, but I don’t believe they would have listened. They might not have inflicted the same death on them, but they would have killed them nonetheless. A blade or a noose would have worked just as well. You would have discovered them dead in their cells before we left, and every man on Krasis would have confessed ignorance of how it had happened.”

  “It doesn’t make me feel any better. I didn’t even try.”

  Alis moved closer to him. She brushed a hand through his hair, the first time she had touched him since their relationship had changed.

  “I saw the same expression on your brother’s face when he was forced to reduce Archaeon to a nuclear wilderness,” she said. “I will tell you what I told him: the fact that this troubles you is what makes you a good man. Only if you felt no guilt would I be concerned for you.”

  Steven wasn’t sure that he agreed. Doing nothing to prevent something awful from happening didn’t make you a good person, and neither did feeling bad about it afterward. Preventing it from happening in the first place would have been the right thing to do. But he decided to say nothing more about it. It wasn’t a discussion that he wanted, or needed, to have with Alis. They were on different ground with each other now, and he felt a new distance between them.

  “Have you decided what to do with the remaining guards?” Alis asked.

  “They can stay on Krasis. With life support. There’s been enough killing here.”

  He reached up and squeezed her hand, then released it before she could. Such small gestures were still awkward, and painful.

  “Thank you, Alis. You did well,” he said. “Without you, we would not have taken Krasis.”

  “I did advise you that mine was the better plan.”

  “I didn’t know smugness was part of your programming,” said Steven.

  Alis headed for the door.

  “If it was not,” she said, “then I believe that it should have been.”

  • • •

  The Revenge and the Marauder were the last vessels to leave Krasis. Steven waited until the other ships were out of sight before they finally ascended from the surface of the moon. He was well aware of the mutterings of dissent that had accompanied his decision to let the remaining Securitats remain alive, and there was nothing that he could do to stop the former prisoners from returning once he had gone and destroying the life support systems. He just hoped that they would be relieved to have put the prison behind them, and instead concentrate on finding more worthy targets for their anger. The cell doors were on a timer, and would only unlock once the last two ships were safely away from Krasis. Steven had ordered the communications array to be disabled before they left, and all drones destroyed, so the guards wouldn’t be able to send a distress call. It wouldn’t be too long before someone came to investigate their silence, but by then his two cruisers would be well on their way to Earth, while the rest would either have hooked up with the Military or found a base of operations from which to attack Corps shipping.

  As an alternative, Alis had suggested to Vichek that one of the moons orbiting Royas, in the Evis system, might provide a reasonably secure refuge. At least two of them had water and a breathable atmosphere, and no indigenous life capable of posing a serious threat to safety. They were also within strike-and-run distance of a series of Illyri shipping routes. She guessed that it would be quite a while before the Corps began to suspect that the attacks were not the work of guerrilla activity by the Military and connected them to the Brigade escapees, if they ever did.

  “They won’t know if we don’t leave any survivors to tell,” Vichek said.

  And Alis could only agree that, yes, this would probably solve the problem.

  • • •

  The journey back to Earth was not uneventful. As before, they did their best to steer clear of Corps and Military vessels, but on the second boost they emerged straight into the heart of a small convoy escorting a crippled Corps destroyer back to its base. It was the first test of the ability of the Revenge and Marauder to fight in unison, and of Rizzo’s command capabilities. The destroyer never made it back to base, and the two escorts were annihilated, but not before one discharged a drone toward the wormhole. The Marauder blew it up just before it entered, but it was a close-run thing.

  As they drew closer to Earth, all shipping vanished from their screens. The planet had been isolated, probably because those responsible for unleashing the Others upon it did not want what they had done to become widely known. Steven wondered what excuse they had given for the evacuation and quarantine of Earth. Perhaps nobody even bothered asking, because nobody really cared.

  Steven would make them care.

  And if his mother was dead, he would make the Illyri wish that they had never heard his name.

  PART XI

  MEIA

  CHAPTER 47

  The Tessel system was largely unexplored. Planets and moons had been given only the most simple of designations; in Illyri, the equivalent of Tes-1 for the planet nearest the wormhole, Tes-1a and Tes-1b for its moons, and so on.

  Right from their activation, the Mechs were used for the study of such remote parts of the universe, for it was arduous and sometimes dangerous work. A handful of Mechs could do what it took an entire crew of Illyri to achieve, for the Mechs did not need to rest or eat, and required a fixed order of rotation only to charge themselves occasionally.

  Meia could not recall which of the Mechs had first decided to withhold information from their Illyri creators. It might even have been she who made the decision. If so, she had purged it from her memory, probably for safety. She had been duplicitous from activation, possibly due to a fault in her programming. It was why she had made such a good spy. She had even lied to Paul and the others about her ultimate destination, and she trusted them more than anyone she had ever known, Illyri or human. But everyone broke under torture: everyone. It was only a question of how much one could endure. If they were captured, they would eventually tell their interrogators all that they knew, including the location of the Mech refuge.

  So Tessel was an empty system, chosen by Meia as a decoy because of its size, and the impossibility of searching it thoroughly. But compared to the neighboring Haytalal system, Tessel was a small island. Tessel was big, but Haytalal was immense.

  The journey to Haytalal had been long, and she had experienced feelings of intense loneliness, but she had spent much of it powered down, and for the rest she had prayed and meditated, as well as engaging in more practical modifications to herself. She had despised wearing the face of the novice Layne; it had been necessary, and without the deception Syl and the rest would never have escaped the Illyri system, but Meia felt appalled every time she looked in a mirror.

  As the Varcis traversed the vast reaches of the universe, avoiding the main shipping lanes while occasionally bearing witness on-screen to clashes between Corps and Military ships, she had set to work on her appearance once again. She mapped an image of her old face from her own memories, and then began cutting and molding, using some of the Varcis’s stock of ProGen skin from its medical supplies. The transformation had been less painful than befo
re, for she had access to the correct equipment. Surgical procedures carried out with a laser blade were—not entirely to her surprise—much more precise, and far less psychologically grueling, than cutting into one’s face with a scalpel. But she had also come to accept the reality of pain; she might not have been programmed to experience it, but it now existed for her. The Varcis’s tranquilizers helped control it, but she used fewer of them than she might have done. She was glad of a little pain. It confirmed for her that she was more than a machine.

  So it was something like the old Meia who approached Hayt-7, to give it its Illyri designation. It was one of the farthest planets from the dwarf star that supplied its warmth—any closer, and the heat from the star would have made it uninhabitable. It lay in the upper half of a spiral galaxy that might have been considered beautiful had Meia not seen so many like it before. Hayt-7 was a desert world, but from a distance gave the impression of a planet in the process of fragmentation, surrounded as it was by multiple rings of debris chains, like the old, inaccurate diagrams of electrons orbiting a nucleus that once figured in textbooks.

  Negotiating the debris fields was the most difficult aspect of accessing the planet, and required Meia’s full concentration. Once she was clear of them, and descending toward the surface, Hayt-7’s great secret was revealed to her once more.

  Hayt-7 was littered with bones.

  The planet had no indigenous life-forms. It was, despite its atmosphere, a long-dead world, yet scattered across it were the remains of creatures, the largest beings that Meia had ever seen. Each must have stood eighty or ninety meters in height when alive, its head shaped like a gargantuan hooked claw, its rib cage a great cathedral of bone, most of its power residing in its huge back legs, while its forelimbs supported its upper body. The brief examination of its brainpan that Meia had conducted on the first sweep of the planet many years before suggested it was intelligent, a theory backed up by her other great discovery here: the wreckage from an unknown ship that had crashed on Hayt-7 in ancient times, while the Illyri were still throwing rocks at one another outside caves. The wreckage had become part of the landscape, just like the creatures and their skeletons.

 
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