Dominion, p.31
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       Dominion, p.31

           John Connolly
 

  Pemaynell gave up any effort at deception.

  “It doesn’t wish to destroy me,” she said. “It wishes to destroy you.”

  “Do you think that it might be willing to negotiate?” asked Steven. From the corner of his eye, he could see Alis react with surprise.

  The expression on Pemaynell’s face changed. She didn’t speak for a good ten seconds, and Steven wondered if she was in silent congress with the Other in her head. How badly did Pemaynell want to live? How badly did the Other want to survive?

  And it wasn’t just about the organism in Pemaynell’s head, but about all of the potential Others contained in the holds of that transporter, each capable of infecting a human host and creating many more of its kind.

  “Her name was Michaela Rizzo,” said Steven, seemingly out of the blue.

  “What?” said Pemaynell.

  “The soldier in command of that ship your mine destroyed. Her name was Rizzo. She was my friend.”

  “It is war.”

  “I didn’t start it. None of us did. Just you and your kind, and those things in your heads.”

  “This will not help the negotiation,” said Pemaynell. “What are you offering?”

  “Nothing,” Steven replied. “I just wanted to see if you were stupid enough to think I’d cut a deal with a murderous scumbag like you. Biela, destroy that transporter.”

  “With pleasure,” said Biela.

  “You’re too late!” cried Pemaynell. “Your world is gone.”

  “And shut that bitch up,” Steven added.

  The connection died. Seconds later, so did everything and everyone on board the transporter.

  • • •

  Alis watched Steven from a distance as he wept quietly for Rizzo, and the men and boys lost on the Marauder. She felt for him, but did not want to approach. He had destroyed the crippled transporter in an act of revenge, lashing out in pain at the loss of his comrade. Again, it was the reaction of a child. Only days earlier, he had been tormenting himself for failing to protect the Securitats on Krasis. Now he was guilty of a similar crime.

  Would the Illyri on board the transporter have surrendered? And what of the spores that it contained, the seeds of the Others? Perhaps, in the end, they would have been forced to kill the crew anyway, and destroy the ship in order to dispose of the spores, but now they would never know for sure.

  What kind of boy would Steven have been if the Illyri had never come to Earth? Would he have been cruel? Again, Alis did not know, but she thought not. War and killing had changed him, altering his path, forcing him to draw on aspects of his nature that would have been better left buried.

  And none of this would have mattered if a part of her had not once loved him, and was still filled with affection for him.

  CHAPTER 56

  A team, led by Hague, was assigned to explore the Satia and establish whether it might be possible to operate it with a skeleton crew. Despite all of Steven’s assurances, the Brigade troops insisted on going in fully armed, adrenalized to the gills for a possible firefight with survivors. It was sound discipline and standard procedure, but Steven had no illusions about the capabilities of the Cayth weapon: the Satia had been sterilized of all life.

  The Revenge remained docked with the destroyer until Hague gave the all clear, and confirmed that there were two shuttles in the bay. That was good. It meant that they could move troops and supplies between the two ships without forcing the Revenge to dock every time.

  Steven left Hague and his men to get to grips with the Satia, while he and Alis took the remainder of their group down to Earth on board the Revenge. He felt no guilt about making straight for Edinburgh. He had fought his way from Derith, and taken Krasis, all with one aim in mind: to discover the fate of his mother.

  Now the Revenge passed over the streets and parks of his childhood, all empty. Human remains, almost entirely skeletal, lay scattered on pavements and outside buildings. The only signs of life came from birds, and the insects that spattered on the glass of the cockpit as the Revenge flew in low over Edinburgh Castle. Some of its buildings had been burned and partially destroyed. Steven spotted the wreckage of an Illyri skimmer half buried in the remains of the Governor’s House—probably shot down during the final exodus of the Illyri.

  “What is that?” asked Alis.

  Steven looked to where she was pointing, and saw something big and gray moving across one of the courtyards, a bone in its mouth. Was it a dog, or a cat?

  “My God, it’s a rat!” said Muren.

  He was right. The rodent was huge, probably as long as Steven’s right arm. As the Revenge hovered, it paused and raised itself on its hind legs, showing no fear of the ship. It was joined by more of the horrors, pouring out from sewers and under piles of stones. One smaller animal tried to yank the bone from the first rat’s mouth, and received a warning swipe of a paw for its troubles. When it persisted, the first rat simply dropped the bone and went for its throat, killing it within seconds. It then proceeded to feast on its kill, preferring fresh meat to old marrow, while another rat vanished with its original prize. Tentatively, more rats joined in the meal, until the dead animal was lost beneath a roiling pack.

  “How did they get so big?” asked Muren.

  “Human remains,” said Biela. “They’ve been eating us.”

  “Why haven’t the spores infected them?” Steven asked Alis.

  “It may be genetic, or simply practicality,” she replied.

  “Practicality?”

  “Like the insects, or the birds, particularly the ones that feed on carrion. The bodies get stripped down to the bone: no smell, no risk of disease. The Others might have discovered some vulnerability to infection among themselves or the remaining Illyri.”

  Birds, bugs, and rats, thought Steven: Is this all that’s left of life on Earth?

  “I need to suit up,” he said. “We’re going down there.”

  • • •

  Steven stood before what was left of his home.

  The Illyri had destroyed it, knocking in the roof and the first floor so that everything had ended up at the bottom, the living room and kitchen now just a mass of rubble and slate and broken furniture. A yellowed notice fixed to the gate informed anyone who might have taken the time to read it that the house had been rendered uninhabitable as punishment for Resistance activity, and warned against trespassing. Steven ripped it from the bars and tossed it away, then entered the little front garden. He paused for a moment, overwhelmed by memories, then started to pick his way carefully over the ruins, trying to find anything that might be salvageable, but exposure to the Scottish elements had done for most of it. It wasn’t like in movies, where the hero finds a photograph of his family under a chair and slips it into his wallet. Everything was destroyed, unless he fancied trying to take the cistern of the toilet as a memento, and what hadn’t been wrecked had clearly been stolen, regardless of any Illyri warnings about trespassing. He thought that he saw one of his old sweaters, filthy and damp, and the broken upper half of a statue of a dancing girl that his mother used to keep above the fireplace. He touched none of it. His mother was not here. The Revenge had scanned the rubble before landing, and found no trace of a body beneath it. That was some consolation, at least. There was still hope.

  Alis stood behind him, unrecognizable in her biohazard suit. A little farther away was Biela, his back to them as he scanned the surroundings. The rest of the team remained on board the Revenge. They only had six biohazard suits, and the decontamination chamber could accommodate just two or three at a time.

  The clouds closed in as a soft rain began to fall. Steven wondered what time it was. It felt like late morning.

  “Sir?”

  It was Biela.

  “Yes?”

  “I thought I saw something moving.”

  “More rats?”

  Steven couldn’t keep the disgust from his voice. He’d been forced to kill one shortly after emerging from the Revenge. It had come st
raight for him, sensing food. He’d blasted it with a pulse, and now bits of it were scattered across the Pattons’ garden wall. The Pattons had lived next door to the Kerrs since before Steven was born. It was the only house with a painted garden wall. Mr. Patton would have been really annoyed to see it splattered with a dead rat.

  “I’m not sure. It looked bigger.”

  Steven stepped down from the ruins.

  “Muren, are you picking up anything on the scans?”

  Muren’s voice sounded in his earpiece.

  “No, sir, but the buildings are blocking us.”

  The scans could penetrate a few feet of rubble, but not a line of terraced houses.

  Steven joined Alis and Biela.

  “Where was it?”

  Biela indicated the end of the street, where Clerwood Terrace joined Greenwood Close.

  “Just down there. It was fast.”

  It was only then that Steven noticed that the birds had stopped singing.

  “Get back on board,” he said just as the Cutter appeared over the top of the Pattons’ roof and rolled down onto the lawn, tumbling so fast that it was little more than a blur. It landed on a quartet of spindly, jointed legs, and exposed its beaklike mouth amid flailing tentacles.

  “What the hell is that?” shouted Biela, but Steven was already firing, the pulser whining as he instinctively ratcheted it to full power. The Cutter exploded, showering the entire front of the Pattons’ house with its insides, and putting the damage caused by the dead rat into perspective.

  “Go!” said Steven, just as another of the creatures appeared from between two houses across the street, and a third emerged from an open manhole about forty feet in front of the Revenge. A burst of fire from the ship’s front cannon sent it the way of the first, but the last Cutter was learning fast and using the garden walls for cover.

  “Where is it?” asked Alis, but Steven wasn’t listening, because now it seemed that every house was alive with the beasts. They were appearing at broken windows, and sliding through open doors.

  Clerwood Terrace was a nest.

  He and Alis laid down as much covering fire as they could while Biela entered the Revenge through the decontamination chamber at the rear, and then returned the favor while Steven and Alis retreated. They had barely made it inside, and the door was closing, when a Cutter inserted itself into the gap and lashed at them with the bladelike protrusions at the end of its tentacles. Alis fired a pulse, and blew it away. The door sealed.

  “Decontamination now!” ordered Steven. “And get us off the ground.”

  Thuds came from above their heads. The creatures were on the ship. They felt the Revenge lift off, tilting slightly beneath the awkwardly distributed weight of the Cutters. Steven, Alis, and Biela remained in their suits as the decontamination chamber sent a blast of heat across them. The suits were capable of withstanding ambient temperatures of up to a thousand degrees Fahrenheit, which was more than hot enough to destroy any spores that might have adhered to them. Sweat bubbled uncomfortably from their pores. Once the process was complete, they stripped themselves of the suits and entered a chemical wash, which seemed to be set to bracingly cold, and only then were they admitted into the main body of the ship, pink-cheeked but shivering. They grabbed fresh flight suits and made for the command deck, the Revenge jostling as the Cutters continued to attack.

  A Brigade pilot, al-Ghamdi, was at the controls when they reached the deck.

  “We’ve managed to dislodge a few,” he said, “but we still have two of them on us.”

  Alis took the copilot’s seat, and al-Ghamdi handed over the controls to her. An alarm sounded.

  “They’re starting to cut through the hull,” said Alis.

  Steven ordered Biela to the cannon.

  “Try and hit them,” he said. “But be careful. Them, not us, okay?”

  Biela did as he was told, maneuvering the lighter cannon until its barrels were virtually parallel with the body of the ship.

  “Tilt starboard!” he called. “Now!”

  Alis reacted instantly, and one of the Cutters was thrown off balance by the movement. It held on to the hull with half of its tentacles, but most of its body was now in front of one of Biela’s guns, and then its upper half was gone in a blaze of fire, and the remaining tentacles released their grip and fell.

  “One down,” he yelled.

  The second Cutter appeared on their cockpit window, and attempted to slice through the thick glass. Steven tried to gauge their position. It looked like they were heading back toward Princes Street Gardens.

  “Aim for the trees,” he told Alis.

  “We’ll be very low.”

  “If we don’t, we’ll be very dead. Brace, everyone!”

  Alis descended, then pulled level only feet from the ground. Beyond the creature, Steven could see the greenery rapidly approaching. He dived for a chair and belted himself in.

  The Revenge shot through a copse of trees, smashing them with its impact and knocking the Cutter from the glass, giving them just enough time to avoid the huge Scott Monument before they turned back to seek their quarry. The Cutter was on the ground, and already running for cover. It didn’t make it. Biela took care of that.

  “Damage report,” said Steven.

  “We have a hole in the hull,” said Alis.

  Steven froze, visions of spores pouring through it and into the cabin already playing in his head.

  “How deep?”

  “Primary layer. We haven’t been compromised, but we’ll need to repair it before we leave the earth’s atmosphere.”

  “Are we okay until Ireland?”

  “Yes.”

  “Then get us there. You know the coordinates.”

  Alis did. Meia had shared the location of the Irish bunker with them before they departed.

  If humans had survived anywhere, it was there.

  CHAPTER 57

  Trask watched Fremd as he cut into the remains of the Other. Both wore protective clothing, even though they were certain that the creature’s spore sac had been removed completely. Trask had supervised the operation himself, in a field by a an old farmhouse, surrounded by the smoking husks of three drones. His people had been fortunate; they’d come across the drones while they were on the ground, and had disabled them with grenades before they could take off. Only one had contained a Cutter, though, and its response to the attack had been sluggish. They’d killed it easily.

  It was the only thing about the expedition that had been easy, though. Trask was weary, weary to his bones. The previous day, he had officiated at a memorial service, for two years had passed since they’d lost Dolan and Burgess to a Cutter. It seemed to Trask that he spent a lot of time leading prayers for the dead. He sometimes found it hard to believe that it was only four years since the Others had been unleashed on Earth. The time before felt like a dream of another life lived long ago. The days dragged in the bunker, where everything—food, light, heat—was rationed, but they dragged outside as well, while the humans ranged these deadly lands, scavenging for anything that might help them to survive a little longer underground.

  On his darkest days Trask almost envied those who’d been taken quickly, at the beginning, because for those who remained it was a slow, squalid march toward death. He marveled that there’d ever been a time in his life when the minutes would fly into hours and hours into days, until he worried at where all the years had gone. It was one of the great mysteries of time; it sped for happiness, and slowed for sorrow, until the final sorrow came to an end, and it stopped entirely.

  Funny, he thought—except that it wasn’t, not really—how their lives had gradually drifted into something from yesteryear. The survivors were now unable to use diesel or petrol, for oil products have a shelf life, and all stocks were now stale. Trask and his people were reduced to ranging on bicycles, and transporting what they could on carts and wheeled baskets, like children and old folk used to do. The water purification and desalination plants still
worked, which was something, and they had food, even if it was limited to what they could grow in the bunkers, or the occasional tinned produce they still found, but life was growing increasingly hard, and they felt more and more isolated. The bursts of radio contact with other bands of survivors were becoming rarer. Humanity was dying out.

  And all because of the Others.

  Frankly, even wearing a full suit and mask, Trask felt uneasy anytime he was forced into close proximity to one of the parasites. He’d witnessed firsthand what they could do, watching impotently as animals and people succumbed to them, their bodies swelling agonizingly before exploding in clouds of spores. What the Illyri and the Others had done to his planet could never be sufficiently avenged.

  But in his quieter, sadder moments, Trask acknowledged to himself that it would probably never be avenged at all. Who knew how many human beings were left alive?

  For a time, all contact between the pockets of survivors had ceased because the Illyri had begun targeting shortwave transmissions and bombing or raiding their sources. Some transmissions had resumed since the Illyri stopped making regular sorties, but they were kept short, and most told the same story: dwindling supplies of medicines, children weakening, despair setting in. Trask and his people were luckier than most, but they were just about keeping everyone healthy through carefully rationing the last of the tinned food to add to what they were cultivating underground.

  And then there was Fremd, an Illyri living alongside the humans that his own race had sacrificed to the Others. He and Trask had butted heads when they were both fighting the Illyri, mainly because each thought that he should be the one in charge of all Resistance operations in Scotland. Now, trapped in a bunker, they had been forced to work together. It wasn’t easy at the start, but there was now mutual trust and respect between them, even if it hadn’t quite blossomed into actual affection.

 
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