Dominion, p.30
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       Dominion, p.30

           John Connolly
 

  “Delay them, Alis,” said Steven.

  “How?”

  “I don’t know. Just tell them Waltere and Sulus are in a meeting.”

  “I’m not your secretary!”

  “Alis, this really isn’t the time.”

  “Fine.”

  Was that a huff? It certainly looked and sounded like one to Steven.

  Alis opened visual and audio channels. There was no point in trying to spin a tale of lost visuals on both the Revenge and the Marauder. That would just strain credulity from the start. At least Alis was prepared; she had found some of Yallee’s voice recordings on the ship’s log, and could now imitate her perfectly. Also, with a flight cap pulled low on her head, she bore a passing resemblance to the dead officer.

  “This is First Officer Yallee on board the Gradus,” she replied. “Commander Waltere is concluding a discussion with Captain Sulus, and requests your indulgence until the meeting is over.”

  This time the delay between sending and receiving was about three hours in total; they were eating up the miles between the wormhole and the nearest relay. As soon as they passed it, communications between them and the Iria would be virtually instantaneous.

  The image of a female officer appeared on the screen. She wore the black of the Securitats.

  “This is Security Officer Pemaynell,” she said. “Unauthorized entry to this solar system is prohibited. Under security order seven-zero-two, I demand that the senior officers present themselves and explain the reason for their intrusion here.”

  “What’s security order seven-zero-two when it’s at home?” Steven asked Alis.

  “I have no idea. Must be new.”

  “I hate people who go around making up new rules.”

  “What do you want me to tell her?”

  “Tell her nothing. Whatever answer we give will be the wrong one. Let’s leave them wondering for as long as we can.”

  In retrospect, perhaps they shouldn’t even have answered the first message, but it was too late now. The situation was always only going to end one way: with the Revenge and the Marauder facing off against the Iria and the Satia.

  “We’re receiving demands for security clearance codes from both ships,” said Alis.

  “Send them whatever codes we picked up on Krasis.”

  It was all smoke and mirrors. Every problem they caused the Illyri, every communication that needed to be examined or decoded, brought them a step closer to home.

  Two more transmissions were received from Pemaynell. The first simply repeated her request that Waltere and Sulus appear before her. The second was more interesting, and set Steven’s mind at rest, if only a little. Pemaynell was obviously confused—those security codes probably helped—which meant that she didn’t have certain knowledge of a problem on board the two new Illyri craft, and therefore wasn’t prepared to regard them as hostile without further confirmation. But she was also clear on the reception they would face if they continued on their present course.

  “In the absence of a satisfactory response,” she warned, “we are placing our fleet on full alert. If you approach within half a million miles of this world, we will respond with force.”

  “Half a million miles?” Steven asked Alis.

  “About twice the distance from the earth to the moon.”

  “Maybe she has problems with intimacy,” interjected Hague. “I bet she doesn’t like being hugged. And someone should also tell her that she doesn’t have a fleet. She’s only got three ships.”

  “It’s one more than we have,” said Steven.

  “Nobody likes a pessimist.”

  Steven opened a channel to the Marauder.

  “Rizzo, have you been listening to all that?”

  “Loud and clear.”

  “Let’s see if they’re still so bullish once we get within range.”

  “Understood.”

  One of their new crew spoke up. His name was Muren, and he was small, blond, and sixteen. He looked less like he belonged in the Brigades than in a particularly unthreatening Scandinavian boy band.

  “Sir?” said Muren. “Won’t they fire when we get in range?”

  “Probably,” Steven replied.

  Muren digested this.

  “What’ll we do then, sir?”

  “We’ll try not to be wherever they’re aiming when it happens.”

  “Okay.” It didn’t appear to be the answer for which Muren had been hoping.

  “Are you worried?”

  “A bit, sir.”

  “Do you have family back on Earth?”

  “Yes, sir. My mother and father, and my two sisters. They’re in Oslo. Or were.”

  “I left my mother in Edinburgh,” said Steven. “I want to find out if she’s safe too. I can’t do that if I let some Illyri destroyer blow us to smithereens, can I?”

  “No, I don’t suppose so, sir.”

  “So don’t go concerning yourself about what those Illyri may or may not try to do once we get closer. It’s them who should be worried about us. In the meantime, I have a job for you. I want you to collect details of the immediate families of everyone on board the Revenge and the Marauder. Once we establish contact with whatever is left of the Resistance, we’ll set about trying to learn what’s happened to them all.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  Muren gave a salute, and trotted off to find a stylus and a recording pad.

  “Nicely done, Ste—sir,” said Hague. “If you don’t mind my saying so.”

  “What about you, Sergeant? Do you have family back on Earth?”

  “A sister, somewhere,” said Hague. “We were never close.”

  “Are you worried about her?”

  “Not really.”

  “Seriously?”

  “You know how they used to say that only rats and cockroaches would survive a nuclear apocalypse?”

  “Yes.”

  “It’s not true. My sister would survive as well. The rats and cockroaches would probably make her their queen.”

  Steven thought about this.

  “Well, one person fewer for us to find, then,” he said.

  “Happy to have helped, sir.”

  Together they stared at the images of the Satia and the Iria on the screen before them.

  “That’s a big destroyer,” said Hague.

  “Yes, it is,” said Steven. “I don’t know what we’re going to do with it once we capture it.”

  Hague stared at him, then began to laugh. It was an honest laugh, huge and generous, and when Steven looked around the cockpit, he saw that the sound of it had caused the rest of the crew to smile as well, even the returning Muren.

  Steven smiled with them, even though he’d been quite serious in his reply.

  He really wasn’t sure what they were going to do with the Satia once it was theirs.

  • • •

  Day by day the tension increased as they drew closer and closer to Earth. The Illyri made no further attempt to contact them. The Marauder destroyed the main communications relay just beyond Jupiter’s orbit around the sun. The relay was bigger than the rest, and equipped with message drones that could be sent through the wormhole. They had detected no such drones being dispatched before they reached the relay, which Steven considered a mistake on the part of Pemaynell and her colleagues. Perhaps they’d been hoping that the approaching ships would leave the relay intact, and if necessary a drone could be sent once they were safely past it. Had one been activated before the intruders reached the relay, it could have been chased down and destroyed. In this particular case, the Illyri had gambled, and lost.

  They had Mars in sight when the Satia and the Iria started to come about. By the time they reached the limits of the exclusion zone, the Revenge and the Marauder were at battle stations.

  “Rizzo?” said Steven. He spoke softly, and her voice came back to him over his personal earbud.

  “Receiving.”

  “You’re clear on your orders?”

  “I’
m clear. Cooper will be at the helm. He is Sergeant Agostino’s recommendation.”

  Steven didn’t need to ask where Rizzo would be. She would be at her weapons station. He, on the other hand, would be in sole charge of the Revenge, with Alis as backup should anything happen to him.

  “Good luck, Rizzo.”

  “And you. Sir.”

  The moon loomed before them. The Revenge and the Marauder were running alongside each other, but now they separated, the Revenge moving to port, the Marauder to starboard, both in order to approach their assigned ships and to make themselves more difficult to target in turn. For a few moments the images of the Satia and Iria were lost, and then they were no longer required, for the two Illyri vessels became clearly visible before them, the destroyer lagging behind the cruiser, but both coming on fast. The Satia fired first, sending two torpedoes past the Iria and toward the Revenge. Steven let them approach, a pair of blurred stars slowly increasing in size, then veered hard to starboard, skimming the surface of the moon, following the Mare Imbrium, the Sea of Showers, bringing the torpedoes with them until the Montes Appeninus mountain range appeared like a gray wall before them. It filled the cockpit windows so that even Hague swore in apprehension, and he was not alone.

  Then Steven was ascending near-vertically, following the face of Mons Huygens, and the Revenge shook as the torpedoes struck the foot of the mountain. Steven threw her to port, drawing away from the great peak and avoiding the slew of debris from the torpedo impact.

  Beside him, Alis was monitoring the progress of the Marauder.

  “The Marauder has engaged the Iria,” she said.

  Steven risked a glance at the display, and saw an image of the two cruisers engaged in a dogfight, the Marauder drawing the Iria away from the destroyer, which, even with its advanced targeting, could not risk firing upon Rizzo for fear of hitting its own sister craft.

  Now the Satia was again visible to the Revenge. Steven approached it from below, limiting its use of torpedoes but exposing the Revenge to heavy cannon fire. Not all of it could be avoided. They took near-simultaneous hits to starboard, and alarms began to whine.

  “Damage report,” shouted Steven.

  “We’ll live, for now,” said Hague from behind him. “No hull breach, but another one like that and we’ll be breathing stardust.”

  The Revenge opened fire with its own cannon, raking the underside of the Satia. Steven watched with satisfaction as explosions bloomed along its length. Just as Agostino had made his pilot’s recommendation to Rizzo, so too had Hague suggested a gunner to Steven: Biela, a Pole who Hague reckoned was only eighteen but looked ten years older than that, right down to his massive, fiery beard. Steven wasn’t sure about the facial hair, but Biela could certainly shoot.

  Cannon fire raged around them. The Revenge was hit again, but Steven did not waver from his course. He didn’t think of Rizzo, or the Marauder, or the Iria. He had no mother, no brother. He no longer even had a name. There was just the great destroyer before him, and the feel of the controls in his hands. He broke his spell of concentration only once, when the stars finally disappeared and only the Satia remained, and that was to say: “All weapons to me.”

  Biela disengaged. The cannon ceased pounding.

  “Torpedo ready,” confirmed Alis.

  And Steven fired.

  The Satia was struck amidships, its shielding no match for the Cayth missile. Whether this torpedo was somehow different from the rest, or the Satia’s armor caused it to react unusually, Steven did not know, but a ring of bright light surrounded the heart of the destroyer before expanding laterally, slowly immersing the ship in its glow until the totality of the Satia was luminescing. And as the light moved, Steven thought that he could almost see the interior of the ship and the lives of its crew being annihilated one by one, as though the torpedo had doused it in X-rays. The Satia’s engines died, but the temporary energy field created by the torpedo prevented it from drifting. A small Brigade force was ready to enter the ship and claim it on command, but while Steven wanted the Satia, first there was the Iria to be dealt with.

  Steven turned away from the stricken destroyer and prepared to join the Marauder in the battle.

  • • •

  Cooper was a good pilot, but whoever was in charge of the Iria was better. The Marauder had found itself engaged in a lethal dogfight with the technologically inferior vessel, each craft taking small hits but neither being able to deliver a knockout blow, the skill of the Iria’s pilot negating the superiority of the Marauder.

  Rizzo knew her mission: if possible, Steven only wanted the Iria disabled, and its crew forced to surrender. She had hoped to be able to oblige, but now she would be happy just to get the Iria under her guns for long enough to tear it apart and leave its debris floating in space. The Iria was currently behind them, and Cooper was doing his best to shake it off and then maneuver into a position that would give Rizzo a clear shot, but the damage sustained by the Marauder had slowed it down, and it was not responding as well as before.

  “Dammit, Cooper!” shouted Rizzo in frustration, not for the first time.

  “I’m trying.”

  “Try harder.”

  She gave the Iria a blast from the rear cannon, but it tricked to port and the shots went wide.

  “Oh, come on!”

  And then a series of blasts rocked the Iria as the Revenge arrived to help, giving Cooper the chance to pull above it and deliver Rizzo her firing opportunity. With both the Revenge and the Marauder bearing down on it, the Iria was lost. It tried to keep them at bay, but the Revenge’s hits had knocked out its rear cannon and damaged its starboard engine, causing it to list. Steven left it to Rizzo to deliver the killer shot, but as she did so, briefly turning the Iria into a fireball, a single round object shot from the disintegrating ship.

  “It’s a communications drone,” said Rizzo. “I’ve got it.”

  After all this, the last thing they needed was for a drone to alert the Illyri to what had happened to its ships above the earth, but a stray piece of hull from the Iria floated by Rizzo’s sights at the crucial moment, and the drone was obscured.

  “Go, Cooper!” cried Rizzo. “Stay with it.”

  Cooper reacted, shadowing the drone, but as he turned so too did it, coming back toward them instead of continuing on a trajectory out of the solar system.

  “That’s weird,” said Rizzo, and suddenly her earpiece barked into life, and she heard Steven shouting.

  “Back down, Rizzo, back down! That’s not a drone, it’s a—”

  The mine exploded, and from it emerged a cloud of smaller magnetic minelets. Rizzo heard them strike the hull of the Marauder, like hail landing on a tin roof.

  “Sorry, Steven,” she said.

  And then the Marauder was gone.

  CHAPTER 55

  Steven watched the Marauder disappear. One moment it was there, the minelets like small thorns embedded in the skin of the ship, and the next it had disintegrated. The mine had been designed to take out a destroyer or a carrier, which was why the Iria’s commander had not used it until the Iria itself was doomed, for otherwise there was a grave risk of causing the destruction of two ships. The smaller Marauder had simply disintegrated under the force of the connected blasts. There were no bodies, no debris. It was as though it had never existed.

  Not a word was spoken on the Revenge. Steven and Alis had lost Rizzo, but the Brigade troops all had friends, cousins, and even a brother on the Marauder. Now they were no more. The total, horrified quiet that filled the cabin was louder than any words.

  It was left to Alis to break the silence.

  “Steven,” she said.

  He couldn’t look at her. He remained staring blurry-eyed at the empty space once occupied by the Marauder, as though willing it back into existence to prove his vision wrong.

  “Steven,” Alis repeated, more urgently now.

  “What?” he snapped.

  He was surprised to be able to speak eve
n that one small word without hearing his voice break under the strain.

  “There is another ship.”

  He had forgotten the transporter. Now, on the screen, he saw it lurch into life. It was trying to escape the carnage, like some big awkward animal fleeing the hunters’ guns once the rest of its herd had been destroyed.

  “Take us to it,” he ordered.

  The transporter was only lightly armed. It sent a few desultory shots the Revenge’s way, but Biela carefully targeted the weapons, and they ceased firing. The unknown vessel was huge: by comparison, the Revenge was like a fly approaching an elephant. This was what had brought the Others to Earth. This was what had reduced his home to a breeding ground for those abominations.

  This ship.

  Had the Revenge possessed another Cayth torpedo, Steven might have chosen to cleanse the transporter. After all, he could have found some use for it. But without the torpedo, it was just a polluted ark. He wondered how many spores remained on it. The fact that it had not left Earth’s orbit indicated that it might still be in use.

  “They’re hailing us,” said Alis.

  “Open a channel,” Steven replied.

  He was surprised to see the image of Pemaynell appear again. He would have expected her to be on the Iria, and therefore now dead. Instead here she was, alive and well on the transporter, or as well as someone could look who had just witnessed the destruction of a destroyer and a cruiser, leaving her defenseless.

  “Who are you?” asked Pemaynell.

  Steven let her see him. Pemaynell’s face creased in shock.

  “A . . . human?”

  “My name is Steven Kerr. I’m a Brigade pilot, and also leader of this particular unit of the Resistance.”

  He turned to Alis.

  “Stand up, please,” he said.

  Alis did so.

  “This is my second in command. Her name is Alis. She’s a Mech.”

  Somehow Pemaynell managed to look even more shocked.

  “What have you got in your head, Security Officer Pemaynell?” asked Steven.

  “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “Is it related to those spores you’re carrying on that transporter?” asked Steven. “I figure that’s why you moved to that big ship once we appeared, so that the thing in your skull could be near its own kind. Did it tell you to try to make a run for it? What’s it telling you now, Pemaynell? Is it going to blow your head apart? I’ve seen it happen. It looks painful.”

 

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