Dominion, p.3
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       Dominion, p.3

           John Connolly
 

  With a weary sigh, Syl activated the nictitating membranes over her eyes. It was the closest thing she had to eyelids. She didn’t envy human beings much, but one aspect of their physicality that she would gladly have spliced into the Illyri DNA was the gift of eyelids. If nothing else, they enabled humans to shut out most visual stimuli, bright light apart, and send a signal to others that any disturbance would be unwelcome. In the absence of them, the semitransparent membranes would have to suffice.

  Syl had felt different ever since the events at the palace at Erebos, when she had been forced to unleash herself on the Gifted. At the time, she had experienced a kind of surge of exultation and energy as she had brushed aside each of the young Nairene Novices. Initially she had put it down to anger and adrenaline, and—perhaps—the secret joy of at last being able to test herself against worthy opponents. On Erebos, Syl had killed, and she was troubled by how little guilt or regret she had felt at taking the lives of others.

  They made me do it, she reminded herself over and over. The Gifted had murdered unarmed Illyri, and had been about to kill Paul when she intervened. Had Syl faltered, even for a second, they would have murdered her too. They had given her no choice.

  But—and here was the terrible truth, the secret dark stain that could not, must not, be revealed to anyone, not even Paul—Syl was glad that they had forced her to act. She hated them—Sarea, Xaron, Mila, Nemeine, and, most of all, Tanit—and their viciousness had given her an excuse to act on that hatred. They had been dangerous, but Syl was far more lethal than they could ever have imagined.

  Now, in the tense quiet of the Nomad’s cabin, Syl re-created those moments, and felt again those bursts of elation, like lightning flashing through her system, and realized that they had been strongest when she caused the death of one of the Gifted. It was as though in dying they had released their essence, the thing that gave them their psychic abilities, and it had immediately transferred itself to Syl, seeking to earth itself in her. Each time one of the Gifted breathed her last, Syl’s powers had grown. But even that could not explain the leap in her abilities since she had passed through the Derith wormhole. These were powers on an entirely new scale: to be able to escape the physical, to escape the confines of the Nomad, to roam across the void and touch an entirely alien consciousness, sensing its mood, its intentions, however primitively at first. And she would get better at it, oh yes, of this she was certain. And while it scared her, the possibilities made her almost breathless with excitement.

  Right now sleep was the furthest thing from her mind.

  The membranes slid sideways, shapes and light becoming clearer as they did so. She took in the cockpit: Steven and Alis, still at work; Rizzo behind them, concerned only that whatever was left of her weaponry would still function if required; Thula stretched out across three chairs, seemingly asleep, the presence of the alien threat off their bow less worthy of his concern than the possibility of snatching some much-needed rest after the events of the previous days. Meia and Paul were still absent.

  Go on, thought Syl. Do it. Explore them. You know you can. You’ve already done it a little, and none of them even noticed.

  No, that wasn’t true. She hadn’t tried it on Alis or Meia—especially not Meia. They were different. Their intelligence was artificial, but, conversely, they were also more sensitive in their way than any of the others. Like Syl, Meia and Alis were also altering, mutating. They were capable of emotional responses, and that was most certainly not part of their original programming. For Syl, the only surprising aspect of the Mechs’ evolution was that their creators had not anticipated it. Their framework might have been plastic and metal, but they were essentially biomechanical: advanced models fitted with ProGen skin, flesh, and internal organs. ProGen was grown in laboratories, but it was the same material that was used in surgery on Illyri, replacing damaged tissue with its artificial equivalent. The point about ProGen was that it formed neural connections. On a nanotechnological level, it repaired damaged pathways. You could feel someone’s touch on your ProGen skin, and taste a kiss with your ProGen lips and tongue. And each new version of ProGen incorporated lessons learned from the previous one. Its nanobots adapted.

  Syl forced her body to relax, in imitation of sleep. Her remarkable eyes became like vivid golden marbles, both absorbing and reflecting the light. Her thoughts were racing. Thinking about the concepts that had apparently come lately to the Mechs—sensation, emotion—brought her back to Paul, and the other manifestation of her gifts that she had so far thought best to keep from him. She allowed her mind to move through the Nomad, searching for him. She encountered Meia along the way, but slipped around her. It was Paul she wanted. She found him in the captain’s cabin. She should not be doing this, she knew. It was wrong, an invasion of his privacy that should have been beneath her, and yet what girl has not wished she could know a boy’s deepest, secret musings?

  Syl entered Paul’s head, and read his thoughts. Just as with the alien intelligence, she experienced it not as coherent pieces of logic or emotion but as disparate clouds of color and banks of sound, within which could be found scattered images, voices, words. She saw his mother—green yellow warmth love fear miss you die not die sorry father sorry—and Steven—orange green anger envy loyalty love Alis danger home mother sorry sacrifice live—before she came to herself. She felt and saw blue and red, hints of green and black, a mass of confused emotions, but two that overwhelmed most of the rest, swirling together like smoke: fear love fear love love Syl love fear love fear anger love fear anger Syl.

  She left him, and returned to herself. She was aware of a figure standing before her. Meia was staring down at her.

  “What?” asked Syl.

  “You’re not sleeping,” said Meia. “Which raises the question of what you are doing.”

  She watched Syl for a moment longer before going to assist Alis and Steven with their checks.

  CHAPTER 6

  The Nomad’s progress halted when they were about a mile from the alien vessel.

  “What’s happening?” said Paul.

  “I don’t know,” said Alis.

  “Try asking them.”

  “It hasn’t worked before.”

  “You never know.”

  Alis opened all channels.

  “This is the Nomad requesting communication with commander of unknown vessel,” she said. “Please respond.”

  Nothing.

  “Try again,” said Paul.

  “Unknown vessel, this—”

  All displays vanished from the cockpit screens, to be replaced by a single word rendered in the Illyri alphabet:

  WAIT

  So they waited, for what else could they do?

  • • •

  In a strange way, the break was almost welcome. Many hours passed without any further communication from the alien ship, and the Nomad’s crew became somewhat inured to its presence. Alis even darkened the cockpit windows, which made the massive bulk of the strange craft much less intimidating, and helped the crew to take turns sleeping. They had spent so much of the previous weeks fighting and fleeing that they were exhausted. With their fate taken out of their hands, all they could do was eat and rest. The Nomad had been resupplied at Melos Station, so it had a full larder. Okay, so most of it was Illyri food, but some of it wasn’t bad. In addition, their Illyri Brigade officer, Peris, had managed to requisition some human rations from the station’s huge stores, so there were chicken and noodle dishes that required only rehydration, along with coffee, tea, and even some chocolate. They ate well, and took turns to wash.

  Alis and Meia did not sleep or eat, but they availed themselves of the opportunity to get clean, and afterward Steven and Alis slipped away together into the rear cabin. Paul didn’t object: after all, there was a limit to what they could get up to back there. At least, he hoped so. He sipped his coffee standing in the ship’s tiny galley, and tried not to listen to the sounds of lips squelching together coming from somewhere over hi
s right shoulder.

  “Young love.”

  Syl laid a hand on his arm as she spoke.

  “I worry about him,” said Paul. “Actually, I worry about both of them.”

  “I don’t think it can end happily.”

  “How could you say such a thing?” Paul replied. “A teenage boy filled with raging hormones, and an artificial being coming to terms with unanticipated emotional responses?” He smiled, but just a little sadly. “How can it possibly go wrong?”

  “What about an older teenage boy, also filled with raging hormones, and an Illyri girl, who likes to think she’s slightly more in control of her hormones, but not by much?”

  Paul turned and opened his arms to her. She melted into his embrace with something like relief. She was as tall as him now, and doubtless would grow taller yet, but her hair was still soft against his cheek and her warmth as enticing as ever it was, and he pressed himself against her.

  “I remain optimistic,” he murmured.

  “So do I,” she said. “Can we talk?”

  “Isn’t that what we’re doing?”

  “Actually, I think what you’re doing is trying to kiss my neck.”

  “Maybe.”

  “Not that it isn’t lovely, but I do need your full attention for a moment.”

  Paul sighed, and disengaged. Good grief, he thought, I’m even thinking in ship’s terminology about physical interaction with my girlfriend.

  “I’m listening.”

  “What I did earlier, when the alien ship sent out that scanning device—”

  “You mean, taking away our ability to act against a possible threat?”

  “Yes, that.”

  “You know, given that I’m supposed to be in charge, I could have had you court-martialed.”

  She made a dismissive noise at him. “Oh yeah? You and what army, exactly?”

  “It was dangerous, Syl. And wrong.”

  “Could you just listen to me without adding a sermon?”

  “Go on.”

  Syl took a deep breath and looked away from him. She started fiddling with her necklace again, as if it were worry beads. As she began to speak, her voice was so low that Paul could barely hear her. He leaned closer.

  “I don’t think I could have blocked you all in that way even a few days ago: one person, maybe, but not an entire crew.” She glanced at him quickly to make sure she had his attention, then immediately looked away. “Also, this ability to . . . probe, this deep psychic contact, for want of a better description, that’s new too. It’s like my consciousness can now float free. I didn’t even have to think about what I was doing, Paul: it was just a natural reaction, in the same way that you might raise your hand to catch a ball when it’s thrown at you. But all this has happened only since we came through the wormhole. It could be that it’s somehow amplifying my abilities.”

  The words that had spilled from her abruptly stopped. Paul waited a moment while considering what she was telling him, and was about to reply when she started speaking again, though still not making eye contact.

  “And I couldn’t admit this to anyone else, only you, but it frightens me, Paul. It’s like—I don’t know, but the only comparison I can find is that I thought I was walking on solid ground, but then I looked down and saw that it was ice, and under it were these incredible depths, but also the risk of drowning. I’m sure whatever I’ve already done is just the beginning. It feels like there’s more to come. Much more.”

  Now she looked at him and he held her eyes. There were so many questions that he just couldn’t seem to formulate, and he wanted to say so much, to console her, to confront her, but all of his words seemed small and trite. What finally came out of his mouth surprised even him.

  “If you can control minds,” he asked, “can you also read them?”

  Syl almost laughed. For a moment she thought about lying, but decided not to. Paul looked both ashamed and worried—ashamed to be concerned over something so personal at a time such as this, and worried that she had glimpsed his private self—and she knew that this was important to him. She cared so deeply about the young man before her: she hoped that he truly loved her, and if he did, surely he should understand what he loved, she reasoned, and would forgive her a moment of weakness. Anyway, she needed to know she could rely on him to be there for her. How could he ever be there for her when he didn’t truly know who she was, and what she might yet become? More than anything, she wanted to be honest, even at the cost of alienating him.

  “Yes,” she replied, “I can.”

  “Have you read mine?”

  “Yes. I shouldn’t have, but—”

  Again, she was tempted to be evasive, to find some excuse for her intrusion upon him, but she settled for the truth.

  “I wanted to,” she finished. “You mean so much to me, Paul, and I wanted to know that you felt the same way.”

  “So what did you see?”

  “I saw that you . . . care . . .” she said, trailing off, leaving the rest unsaid. “I won’t look again.”

  He seemed to consider this, then stepped away from her, and for a moment she was certain that she’d made a mistake in confessing all to him. He looked around, agitated, as if searching for something.

  “Syl, they’re listening to us,” he said. “You told me so. This conversation—they’ll hear. They’ll know what you can do.”

  Syl shook her head.

  “No. We’re in a box,” she said, “just you and I. No sound can penetrate it. They can’t hear or see us through it. I know, because I created it.”

  Paul frowned, and looked away from her again. Syl saw that his cup was sitting on the galley counter.

  “Your coffee has gone cold,” she said, for want of something else to say.

  “Right.”

  “Are you angry with me?”

  “About the coffee?”

  She pushed his arm a little crossly.

  “No, about everything else.”

  “You mean like digging around inside my head without even saying ‘please’?”

  “Yes, that.”

  “Just a bit, but I’ll get over it. Anyway, if I could, I reckon I’d probably have done the same.”

  “You want to look into my mind?”

  He hesitated, but only slightly. She watched him expectantly, and he saw himself reflected in the warmth of her eyes.

  “Yes.”

  “Then do: look.”

  Syl took his hands in hers, placed his fingers against her temples, and opened herself to him.

  Their minds coiled in the greatest of intimacies, and they walked through each other’s hopes and fears, amid all that was good and all that was bad. She showed herself to him, and he to her, and when they were done there was nothing left of which to be ashamed, for everything had been revealed. In that moment, no two beings had ever been closer, and the universe shifted and was reborn.

  The contact ended, but they reached out and held on to each other, his face lost in the thick fall of her bronze hair.

  “Did you see?” she whispered.

  “Yes,” he said. “I saw it all. I saw love.”

  And then the Nomad started to move.

  CHAPTER 7

  The alien ship dominated the view from the cockpit windows. Space was gone, and there was only the vessel. Now that Paul could examine it more closely, he was astonished at the smoothness of the hull, and the absence of any obvious windows or observation ports. Then again, it was entirely possible that this was some kind of automatic sentinel, dispatched to monitor the Derith wormhole and capture or destroy anything that came through it. It would be a dull posting, and an entirely automated system would probably make a better job of it than a crew, as the former was unlikely to become bored by the absence of very much to do. But how did that fit in with what Syl had told them about hearing many voices from the ship, or her belief that their conversations were being monitored by a reactive consciousness?

  But he also had a strange feeling ab
out the vessel, one that he chose not to share with the others because it seemed so ridiculous. There was something deeply organic about the alien craft, and he returned once again to his own earlier comparison with a manta ray. It seemed to Paul that, had he reached out and touched the ship, it might have responded to the contact much as a living thing would: moving slightly beneath the weight of his hand, or perhaps darting away in alarm. He was still considering this when a bay opened in the center of the hull, ready to admit them. He saw no doors: rather, the skin of the ship simply folded back. It called to mind a mouth widening, and Paul thought: We are about to be eaten.

  They entered the body of the ship, but could see nothing before them. The lights of the Nomad seemed unable to penetrate the murk, and the scanners were no longer under their control. For the most part, they were entirely reliant on their own eyes and ears, and whatever extra powers Syl might be able to offer, although she did not speak as the ship engulfed them, for she was as overwhelmed as the rest of them.

  Now all was silence and darkness. They had not even heard the bay doors close behind them.

  And then the shadows began to retreat, like black smoke being sucked through unseen vents, and slowly the interior was revealed to them. It was huge and spherical, and the Nomad hung unsupported at its heart, like the tiny nucleus of some great atom. The surfaces around them were reddish-purple, dotted with pits. Red cables dangled, and a series of raised mounds rose at either side of them. Lights shimmered at irregular points, buried beneath thin membranes so that they shone pink instead of white.

  And the whole mass pulsed. Paul knew that his first impression had been correct all along.

  “It’s alive,” he said. “This ship is a living organism.”

  Syl and the humans had all seen and endured so much in their short lives, but they had never encountered anything like this. Even Meia, older than the rest of them, appeared awed. Only Rizzo resorted to practicalities.

 

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