Dominion, p.27
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       Dominion, p.27

           John Connolly
 

  Skeletons big enough to hide a ship.

  And all of this she had kept from her Illyri masters—she, and her copilots on that mission, Menos and Karel. They were not even supposed to be scouting Haytalal, and Meia was not registered on the crew manifest, but by then she had already begun hearing whispers against the Mechs, and there were also those among her own kind who were preaching that the Mechs should leave the Illyri to their godless state, and set out for the stars. At the time, Meia was concerned. As things turned out, she should have been actively frightened.

  She had not seen Hayt-7 since that first visit, but she had kept it in mind, and as the extent of the Illyri treachery grew clearer—their decision to rid themselves of the Mechs and start again on AI development—Haytalal became a name shared among only a handful of the artificial life-forms.

  Now, as the Varcis descended, Meia found the ship she sought, but not with scanners or by sight. She found it because the beacon in its hull activated a response in the receiver she had planted inside herself, like a voice calling out from the desert floor and resonating inside her.

  Meia brought the Varcis down by the torso of the largest of the dead beings, which contained within it an old Illyri transport ship named the Morir—the ark that had brought the remaining Mechs to safety—and waited to see what might emerge from it.

  • • •

  When movement came, it was not from the ship but from the nearby skull of the creature. From its mouth emerged a figure clad in layers of tattered clothing, holding a long steel rod in its right hand. The rod was topped by an intricate construction of copper wire, fused together to resemble rays emerging from a star: the image of the Divine. The figure remained standing in the shadow of the jaws, only its eyes visible through the material that concealed its face and head.

  Meia left the Varcis. The afternoon was already growing chill, for soon the desert night would descend. The air was thin, but Meia was untroubled by such matters. She walked across the sand until she and the waiting Mech faced each other.

  From beneath the robes appeared a hand. It had sustained some damage, and Meia could see some of the bones of its endoskeleton through the holes in its skin. It pulled aside the cloth from its mouth, and Meia started. Most of the ProGen flesh was missing from its nose down, giving it the appearance of a death’s-head, but still she recognized the face.

  “Emanis,” she said. “I am glad to see you.”

  The lie came easily to her. Emanis was a fanatic, believing himself to have been chosen by the Divine to lead the Mechs to the Promised Land. It was unfortunate that the surviving transporter should have had him on board.

  “Meia,” came Emanis’s reply. Then: “You should not have come here.”

  “Where are the others?”

  “They sleep.”

  “But you do not.”

  “I watch over them. I pray in my church.”

  He gestured at the skull behind him.

  “Come,” he said. “See what I have created.”

  She followed him into the cranium, and marveled despite herself at what he had wrought. He had drilled holes in the skull to admit light, incorporating them into the carvings that covered huge sections of bone so that the chinks became eyes, mouths, stars. She saw the faces of Mechs and Illyri alongside grotesque renderings of beasts both real and imagined, all incorporated into a great creation myth. Stored within Emanis himself was a history of Illyri art, and he had imitated the great artists of Illyri culture in decorating his church. Here were the spectral mourners of Machel’s The Widows of Oris, now transformed into angels; there, the joyous lovers of Polchelti’s Transience, but with their insides exposed to reveal biomechanical workings.

  And towering over all, dominating the ceiling and upper walls, was an enormous rendering of the Creator, the Divine, containing both male and female elements, and mechanical parts alongside the organic. It was clearly a work in progress, but it bore a pronounced resemblance to—

  Well, to Emanis himself.

  “It is . . . striking,” said Meia, trying to conceal her unease, and failing.

  “You disapprove?”

  Tread carefully, thought Meia.

  “No. I am merely overwhelmed. You completed all of this unaided?”

  “I was happy to devote myself to honoring the Creator. Now this dead thing is a hymn of praise to the Divine.”

  But Meia’s eyes strayed to the ceiling, and to the incomplete depiction of that same Creator. Even its mouth was semiskeletal, just like Emanis’s own. He had hung cables from the skull, and built scaffolding so that he could work on his own image.

  “It will be dark soon,” she said.

  “The lights are solar powered,” said Emanis. “They retain their charge from the sun. We can remain in this church as long as you wish.”

  “I would prefer to go to the Morir.”

  “First, tell me why you are here.”

  Emanis sat on a pew he had built from bones, and invited her to do the same. Meia joined him, but kept her distance. The sunlight was dying rapidly, but now lamplight began to replace it. Emanis had rigged it to flicker softly, giving the impression of movement among the carvings. It was profoundly unsettling.

  “The Illyri are tearing themselves apart,” she began. “The Second Civil War is upon us.”

  “Upon them,” Emanis corrected. “We are not Illyri. Their wars do not concern us.”

  “There is another force involved,” said Meia. “And it does concern us.”

  She told Emanis much of what had occurred on Earth and on Illyr, but chose not to mention Syl, or Paul Kerr and his brother. She could not have said why, except that she felt it might complicate matters with Emanis. But she did describe the Others, and the threat that they posed to all life.

  Emanis nodded at their mention.

  “All things are the work of the Divine,” he said. “even these Others. They are a plague sent by the Creator to punish the unbelievers.”

  “They destroy all creatures, whether they have the capacity to believe or not,” said Meia.

  “It is the Creator’s will. We cannot interfere.”

  “To do nothing is to be complicit,” said Meia. “Belief in the Divine does not absolve us of the duty to fight what is evil.”

  “And who is to say that these Others are evil?” asked Emanis. “You, Meia? If all things are the work of the Creator, and the Creator is good, then the Others are part of the Creator’s plan. It is not for us to interfere. And we owe the Illyri nothing: they tried to wipe us out. They killed us in our tens of thousands.”

  “That was not the work of all Illyri. Many would have objected, had they known. And some helped us. You would not be alive otherwise. None of us would.”

  Emanis stood. He waved a hand, and the lamplight started to fade.

  “You are wrong, Meia,” he said. “Go back to your war. I will not wake the sleepers for this.”

  “That is not for you alone to decide, Emanis.”

  But Emanis was not listening to her. He stepped out into the night, and the darkness swallowed him.

  CHAPTER 48

  Meia followed Emanis across the sands, her infrared lenses blurring him slightly as he passed through avenues of bones. Only when they were almost at the Morir did he turn to face her.

  “I told you to leave,” he said.

  “I am not yours to command.”

  “I will not let you enter. You cannot wake them.”

  “They must be allowed to decide for themselves, Emanis. Now is the time for them to return to Illyr, should they wish it. Now is the time for them to show their faces, and avenge the injustice that was done to them.”

  “They are safe here.”

  “They are not immortal. Even the power cells on the Morir cannot sustain them forever. What do you want, Emanis: that they should become like the bones that surround them here, relics of an extinct species?”

  “Leave them in peace, Meia.”

  “I cannot.”

/>   Emanis’s right hand had been concealed in his robes. Now it emerged holding a pulser.

  “Then you will have to add your remains to those that already lie here,” said Emanis.

  He fired, but Meia was already moving, and the pulse impacted on a giant tibia behind her, shattering it. She found her own weapon, and tried to draw a bead on Emanis, but he was already shielded by the rib cage, and she did not wish to kill him. She glimpsed a rectangle of light appear as Emanis entered the Morir, and then it vanished.

  Meia followed Emanis’s path, and came to the ship. If he had tried to secure it against her, he had failed: Meia’s link to the Morir was deeper than any locks and codes. She spoke, and it answered, but she did not enter by the same door that Emanis had used. Instead she ran halfway along the vessel’s great length until she came to a series of large hatches. She knew the layout of the Morir, and this was the closest entrance to the main bays at the heart of the ship, where the sleepers waited.

  The nearest hatch opened at her command, but Meia did not go in immediately, wary of Emanis’s pulser. But when she did risk a glance inside, the corridor before her was empty.

  Meia stepped inside the Morir.

  • • •

  She smelled it as the door closed behind her: a vague odor of old fires, but she could not place the source. It grew stronger as she progressed down the corridor, one of the radial arteries to the bays, which was lit by the faintest of glows from the emergency lighting that activated at her command. The corridor ended at an elevator bank, of which there were several on the exterior of the bays. Beside it was a staircase, and this she used to ascend. Despite her link to the ship, she did not wish to find herself trapped in a small space should Emanis try to override its systems. She knew that he was in here somewhere, probably watching her on the security cameras. She could have attempted to form a deeper connection with the ship to disable them, but that would have meant plugging herself directly into its mainframe, which would have left her vulnerable if Emanis had installed traps to prevent any such incursion. No, she would deal with Emanis later, once the sleepers had awakened.

  She had reached the first of the connecting doors to the bays when she heard Emanis’s voice over the ship’s speakers. The smell of burning was stronger here.

  “This is your last chance, Meia. Turn back. I will not try to harm you again.”

  “You have been out here alone for too long, Emanis,” she said. “You are troubled.”

  That was an understatement, to say the least: Emanis was insane. The pulser incident paled into insignificance next to that image of himself as God.

  “The Creator speaks through me,” said Emanis. “I am in the Creator, and the Creator is in me.”

  Meia activated the door. Emanis began singing through the speaker. It was a hymn entitled “I Walk Beside You Always,” and as his pitch rose he multitracked his voice so that it sounded as though a choir of thousands had joined in with him.

  The door opened. Meia stepped through. She was on one of the lower gangways that ran around the wall of the great circular bay. Into the walls were set alcoves, each containing a single dormant Mech. In this bay alone, Meia was surrounded by thousands of her own kind, all held in sleep mode by a small charge from the ship’s power cells.

  But the smell . . . It concerned her.

  She approached the nearest alcove. Inside, behind a transparent protective shield, Meia could see a female Mech. She looked a little like Alis. The alcoves were not quite airtight. Meia sniffed at the seal, and wrinkled her nose at the lingering acrid stench.

  She pressed a button by the shield, and it slid across, revealing the Mech. A cable led from her temple into the machinery behind, designed to monitor her stasis and provide the signal to wake when the time came. The ProGen skin around the connection was charred and broken, and the monitoring systems showed no signs of life. Meia pulled away a flap of the damaged skin, exposing the burned flesh beneath. She probed deeper until she touched the Mech’s skull, then worked with her fingers to manually remove the plate concealing her central processing unit—the intricate, massively complex circuit that was not only responsible for executing all instructions, but was also the source of the Mech’s personality and even, for some, a physical manifestation of its soul.

  Meia removed the unit, although she already knew what she would find. It had been so badly damaged that it was warped, and pieces of it crumbled away in her fingers. She looked at the name on the Mech’s shirt: Olra. She searched her own memory, and found her: date of activation, specialized programming, distinctive personality traits—all were gone. Her CPU had been overloaded. Olra was dead.

  Meia checked five more Mechs at random, with the same result, and all the time Emanis’s singing continued.

  And in that bay, Meia knew grief beyond reckoning.

  Finally, she spoke.

  “Did you do this, Emanis?”

  The singing stopped.

  “Yes.”

  “Why?”

  “There was little hope here.”

  “So you took away all hope entirely.”

  “I gave them eternal life,” said Emanis.

  “And yet you spared yourself.”

  “If I had not, then who would have prayed for their souls?”

  His singing resumed. Meia found an input slot, and connected herself to the ship. As anticipated, Emanis had installed some firewalls, but Meia breached them all. Now the ship’s eyes were her eyes, and she saw Emanis. He was kneeling in the Morir’s makeshift chapel, bathed in the artificial light from a window carved of colored crystal, a screen before him.

  Meia secured the door of the chapel, trapping Emanis inside. She used the ship’s systems to confirm that all of the Mechs on board the Morir were dead before slowly making her way to the little church.

  And there she silenced Emanis, and sent him to be judged by God.

  CHAPTER 49

  The Morir had one more mystery to offer. All six of its shuttle bays were empty. Meia ran a trace, found signals on Hayt-13, and left behind that dead world.

  • • •

  Hayt-13: an ice giant, mantled by layers of water, ice, ammonia, and methane, colored cyan by the absorption of red light due to its methane clouds.

  Hayt-13: uninhabitable by most forms of life.

  Meia located the shuttles. They were clustered around a single spot, in the lee of a great frozen slope. She sent a signal, but received no reply. She tried again as the Varcis drew closer to the surface of the planet. If they were still alive, they would be in stasis. It would take them time to wake.

  She prayed.

  And her prayers were answered, just as she became the answer to the prayers of others.

  “Varcis, we hear you.”

  The image that appeared before her was hazy, but she recognized the face immediately.

  “Menos?”

  On the screen, the face of the Mech she had not seen for so many years broke into a smile of disbelief.

  “Meia . . .”

  • • •

  Hayt-13: the Mech sanctuary.

  PART XII

  THE MERCY OF THE ARCHMAGE

  CHAPTER 50

  Ani chose not to approach Sister Priety about the seed transmitter discovered in Merida’s apartments straightaway. Instead, Toria was assigned the task of monitoring her, and intercepting all letters and communications to and from Priety and her Department of Applied Diplomacy, but no evidence of treachery came from the listening. Ani had almost begun to believe that Priety might indeed have been unaware of the listening device hidden in the book of manners she had delivered until Toria came knocking on her door just as she was about to retire for the night.

  “Archmage,” said Toria. “There has been an unauthorized communication.”

  A series of seed transmitters, the tiniest yet devised, had been dispersed through every facet of Priety’s life in the Marque: in her office, her chambers, even in her shoes and clothing, which was carefully remo
ved from the rest of the Sisters’ laundry and cleaned separately so that the seeds could be replaced. Now a seed buried on the undersole of Priety’s slipper had picked up a signal from somewhere in her chambers. It was coded, but Ani’s analysts had deciphered it within seconds. It was a short list of Nairenes, Ani among them, with instructions for Priety to collect a batch of seed transmitters from a Sister called Beyna, who worked in the Marque’s technology division, and sow them in the quarters of each of the named Sisters. The transmission was too short for its source to be traced exactly, but the analysts narrowed it down to somewhere in Upper Tannis.

  On Ani’s instructions, Toria was sent with three Sisters to arrest Priety, and Liyal was dispatched with two more to seize Beyna. But Beyna heard them coming, and locked herself in her cell. By the time Liyal and the others succeeded in gaining entry, Beyna had killed herself with poison.

  Priety, though, was not so fortunate.

  • • •

  “You doubt me, Sister Priety.”

  It was a statement, and the applied diplomacy lecturer seemed to wilt a little under the intensity of Ani’s scrutiny. She looked to the others in the interrogation chamber, but found no pity in their eyes.

  “My apologies, Your Eminence, but I’m afraid I do not understand,” Priety said. Her jaw was firm and her head high and proud, but a quaver crept into her voice.

  “You seem to believe that I’m a fool.”

  Priety started to protest, but Ani’s voice was strident, cutting across her, quieting her whimpers.

  “You are a spy. You have engaged in acts of treason against the Sisterhood. A lecturer in manners, an apparent expert in protocol, yet you have shown yourself willing to sell out your Sisters to those who would destroy this order.”

  “No,” cried Priety, her composure slipping. “No, Your Eminence, I would not! I would never!”

  Ani held up a hand to silence her. On her palm was the tattooed eye of the Sisterhood—clear, strong-lined, and unchanging. Priety recoiled from its unfaltering gaze before attempting to renew her protestations.

 
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