Dominion, p.32
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       Dominion, p.32

           John Connolly
 

  Fremd wasn’t the only Illyri in the bunker either. Two others, a female named Telia and a male named Ralic, had traveled to Ireland with him. Telia was an engineer, Ralic a scientist, and both had deserted from the Military as the Illyri Conquest grew more brutal. Initially there had been anger at their presence, especially as the scale of the Illyri genocide became apparent, but both had proved invaluable to the survival of all. It was Ralic who cultivated the crops, hybridizing and improving them for essential nutrients and sustenance. Telia kept the bunker functioning, combining human and alien technology to patch systems so that they continued to provide heat, light, and water and air purification. Without them, the humans would have been dead long ago. It was kind of ironic, Trask supposed, that they were being kept alive by representatives of the very species that was determined to wipe them out.

  Three Illyri in the bunker with the last humans. Once there had been four, but Trask tried not to think of Althea. He’d destroyed the Cutter that killed her. He’d emptied an entire magazine into it, then gone at it with an ax. It hadn’t made him feel any better, and it hadn’t brought her back.

  Fremd sliced into the head of the Other, revealing its brain tissue.

  “It’s different,” he said.

  “How?” Trask asked.

  Fremd used the tip of the scalpel to point at a slight swelling on the right rear lobe of the brain.

  “We haven’t seen this decay before.”

  “I don’t suppose you can remind me what that bit of it does?”

  “It’s something to do with the interrelationship between the host Cutter and the organism, but in this one it looks diseased.”

  Fremd took a sample of the tissue and placed it under a microscope. He adjusted the focus, and an image of the tissue appeared on the screens above their heads. Trask saw what looked like particles of dust around the nerve endings, one of which also appeared to be withered.

  “What is that stuff?” he asked.

  “It’s plaque,” said Fremd. “Abnormal clusters of protein fragments.”

  He adjusted the magnification again, zooming in on the withered nerve cells.

  “And those are tangles,” he said. “More proteins.”

  Trask was lost.

  “But proteins are good, right?”

  Fremd gave Trask the kind of long-suffering look a teacher might bestow to a child who managed to add two and two and get five. Trask hated that look.

  “It depends. Some are responsible for initiating cell death, which looks like what’s happening here. I see tissue loss, and atrophy.”

  “Good for you. Now maybe you could explain what all that means. And without the pitying glance, please.”

  “It’s possible that this Other had developed, well, Alzheimer’s, I guess,” said Fremd. “Or some version of it.”

  Trask knew what Alzheimer’s disease was. He’d seen it take his own father, gradually robbing him of his memory, his speech, his bodily functions, until finally it robbed him of life itself. But how could an alien have Alzheimer’s?

  He was about to ask Fremd, but the Illyri had moved back to the dissected Other, and was poking at various parts of its brain.

  “Ah,” he said.

  “Ah what?”

  Once again Fremd moved a tissue sample to the microscope.

  “Looks like it’s got holes in it,” said Trask.

  “More plaque,” said Fremd. “Deformed proteins, not dissimilar to those associated with mad cow disease.”

  Trask was familiar with mad cow disease as well. He recalled the carcasses of cattle being burned in great pyres to prevent its spread to humans. It had something to do with eating dodgy meat, he thought, although he couldn’t be sure.

  “So this thing had Alzheimer’s and mad cow disease?” he said.

  “I’m saying that whatever it had resembles both of those conditions,” said Fremd. “But to put it simply, its neurological functions were degenerating.”

  “That’s putting it simply? Try again.”

  “Its brain was rotting. Will that do?”

  “That’ll do all right. Now why was its brain rotting?”

  “It could be only this single specimen, just as some humans get Alzheimer’s and some don’t . . .”

  But Trask knew there was more.

  “Or?”

  “Or . . . the Others may have contracted something from one of the species they’ve infected here on Earth: humans, horses, cattle, bats. It could be any one of them—or more than one.”

  “They’re dying?” said Trask, and for the first time in forever, a bud of hope swelled a little in his heart.

  “No,” Fremd corrected him, “this one was dying. I haven’t seen it in any of the previous remains you’ve obtained, so we won’t know for sure if it’s widespread until you bring me more specimens.”

  Fremd could see this news made Trask less than delighted, even though his face was partially concealed by his protective suit.

  “The only way we can do that is by killing Cutters,” he said, “and that’s easier said than done.”

  But not as hard as it used to be, Trask thought. He’d believed himself to be mistaken when he thought they were slowing, becoming less lethal, but Fremd’s diagnosis of the diseased Other had given him another possible answer.

  “I know,” said Fremd. “I still need more specimens.”

  “But this is hope, right?”

  “Perhaps.”

  “No, it’s hope—and we haven’t had much of that for a long time.”

  “Bring me more of the Others.”

  “I’ll find a way.”

  A red light began flashing in the corner of the laboratory, instantly joined by the noise of a klaxon. Trask moved to the nearest intercom.

  “What is it?” he asked.

  Maeve Buchanan, Fremd’s human partner, was on monitoring duty. Her voice wavered as she spoke.

  “An Illyri ship,” she told Trask. “It looks like it’s coming in to land.”

  And Trask felt all hope die. He’d known this day might come. They all did. But why now, just as it seemed that the Others might not be invincible after all?

  But there was no time for regrets. They had practiced for an assault on the bunker. Everyone knew their positions and their tasks.

  “Sound the battle alarm,” said Trask. “We’re on our way.”

  • • •

  A group of tense faces watched the monitor as the Illyri ship landed on a patch of high grass about forty feet from the main entrance to the bunker, which was hidden beneath a layer of earth and grass. Miniature surveillance cameras encircled the bunker at a radius of a mile, but never before had they picked up an Illyri vessel.

  Beyond the bunker’s main control room, the survivors had taken up their designated positions, ready to repel a frontal attack. They didn’t wear masks or protective suits because there weren’t enough of either to go around; and anyway, the decontamination process would kick in automatically if the bunker was breached. Farther away, a small team of suited Resistance fighters, Lindsay among them, was working its way underground to come up on the other side of the craft, and ambush it with grenades.

  “I haven’t seen one like that before,” said Trask. He had his shotgun ready, and a pistol on his belt.

  “Neither have I,” said Fremd. “It’s bad news for us if they’re sending fresh troops.”

  “It’s bad news either way.”

  The ship’s door opened, and a figure appeared in a biohazard suit. It paused at the doorway before descending the gangway to the ground. It was not armed, and raised its hands in the air as it reached the grass, then stood there, waiting. It appeared to be male, judging by the contours of the suit, and it had something colored wrapped around its neck, although the camera couldn’t quite capture it.

  “What’s he doing?” someone asked.

  “Small for an Illyri,” commented another.

  Trask, who had been leaning over the desk, squinting at the screen, str
aightened. He tapped a button, and opened a channel to Lindsay’s team.

  “Lindsay?”

  “Receiving. We’re almost at the door now.”

  “Hold your position.”

  “I’m sorry? Repeat, please.”

  “I said ‘Hold your position.’ ”

  Trask grabbed a protective suit from a locker and began pulling it on.

  “What are you doing?” asked Fremd.

  “I’m going outside.”

  “It could be a trap. That Illyri could be bait.”

  “It’s not a trap, and that’s no Illyri.”

  “You can’t know that!”

  Now it was Trask’s turn to give Fremd a withering look.

  “When was the last time you saw an Illyri wearing a Motherwell football scarf?”

  • • •

  The bunker door opened, and Steven watched a man slowly ascend the steps from below. He took a deep breath. It had been a huge risk to leave the Revenge and expose himself to possible attack, but Alis could find no way to contact the bunker, and leaving the ship seemed to be the only solution. Alis had thought him mad when he’d made her turn back to find a sports shop before continuing on to Ireland. He just had to hope that nobody in that bunker was a Hearts fan.

  The man approaching him was carrying a shotgun, although it wasn’t pointing at Steven, not yet. He continued walking until he was close enough to see Steven’s face through his mask, and Steven could see his. Neither moved for a moment, until Steven tapped the earpiece on his suit. Trask did the same, and the receivers on the suits opened up a channel between them.

  “Why are you wearing a Motherwell scarf?” asked Trask.

  “I couldn’t find any other one.”

  “You’re lucky I didn’t shoot you on sight.”

  And then the watchers in the bunker were treated to the strange sight of Trask dropping his shotgun, apparently the better to hug the waiting Illyri.

  CHAPTER 58

  Alis and Hague joined Steven, leaving Biela in charge of the Revenge. Trask assured them that they’d find more suits, so the crew could leave the ship and have solid ground under their feet, at least for a little while. Together they headed for the decontamination chambers. As they did so, a group of suited survivors appeared with the intention of masking the Revenge with tarpaulins in order to shield it from curious Illyri eyes.

  “There’s no need,” said Steven. “They’re all dead, unless there are any here on Earth.”

  Trask stared at him.

  “You’re serious?”

  “Yes.”

  Trask looked to the sky, as if expecting Illyri to materialize from the clouds and disprove what Steven was telling him.

  “Well, we’d better get under cover anyway. There are still Cutters to worry about.”

  “Cutters? Is that what you call those things with the tentacles?”

  “That’s right. You’ve seen them?”

  “We killed some of them too.”

  “Is there anything you haven’t killed?”

  Even partially shielded by his helmet, Steven suddenly looked older than his years, and terribly tired.

  “No,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t think there is. Trask, I—”

  But Trask bustled him toward the bunker.

  “We need to get inside. Movement attracts them. Come on.”

  Then they were underground, moving into decontamination, the noise of it so deafening that Steven could not ask the question he had come all this way to have answered.

  My mother. What of my mother?

  • • •

  They stepped from the main chamber. Fresh overalls were provided. Through the small glass window of the connecting door, Steven saw Fremd waiting for them, and Maeve. Trask moved to open it once the system had given him the all clear.

  “Trask?”

  The older man turned to him.

  “I went to Edinburgh, but my house was—”

  Trask hit a button, and the door hissed open. Standing before Maeve and Fremd was a small, middle-aged woman wearing old jeans and a patched cardigan. Steven tried to speak, but no words would come. He felt heat in his eyes, then tears. His mother held out her arms, and her son fell into them.

  • • •

  Later, over tea and baked beans—the former a treat usually reserved for Christmas and special birthdays in the bunker, the latter the equivalent of a Sunday roast for the survivors—Steven told them everything, from the events on Torma to the final battle with the Illyri over Earth. He kept nothing back, not even Syl’s growing powers, for, if the Cayth were right, they represented the best hope of defeating the Others.

  They were a small group: just Steven, his mother, Alis, Fremd, Maeve, Trask, and Hague. The survivors were chatting with crew members from the Revenge who had been freed from duty to enter the bunker under a roster established by Hague, so that everyone would get a chance to leave the ship. Some were using the shortwave radio to try to get news of relatives and friends. Others were already asleep, exhausted by the tension and fighting of recent days and hours.

  “She may not be entirely the last hope,” said Trask. He looked at Fremd. “Tell them.”

  And Fremd spoke of the deterioration in the brain of the Other, although he was hesitant, and kept reminding them that it was just one specimen.

  “We need more of them to examine, though,” he said.

  “We can help you get them,” said Steven, “but it doesn’t change anything.”

  “What do you mean?” asked Trask.

  Alis understood why Steven had spoken as he did.

  “If it’s caused by interaction between the Others and their terrestrial hosts, human or otherwise, then its effects will be limited to this planet,” she said.

  “With respect,” said Trask, “right now this planet is the only one I’m worried about.”

  “They’re not the last of these things,” said Steven. “We destroyed one breeding world, but who knows if the Illyri established more processing plants like the one we saw? At the very least, there are Illyri out there carrying the Others inside them, and as long as they exist, they can breed.”

  “But it could be the beginning of a systemic weakness,” said Fremd. “You yourself told us that the Cayth believed the Others were connected by some form of quantum entanglement. If so, the deterioration could spread.”

  “When did you get so optimistic?” asked Trask, surprised to find Fremd modifying his tone.

  “When you turned out to be so pessimistic.”

  “It’s a Cayth theory,” said Alis. “And we’ve no idea whether it produces physical effects in the Others.”

  “Well,” said Steven, “let’s find some more Cutters as a first step, and at least we can establish if it’s spreading.”

  “Not all Cutters are hosts,” said Trask. “You may have to kill a lot of them. Not that I’ll object if you do.”

  Steven started to reply, but instead he surprised even himself by yawning widely. Outside it was already night. Hague was struggling to keep his eyes open too, and Steven’s body ached all over. He needed to rest. His mother’s hand touched his shoulder.

  “The Cutters will still be out there tomorrow,” she said to Trask. “Let my son rest. Let them all rest for a while.”

  They rose, and Steven’s mother led him to a bunk. He removed his boots and lay down, while his mother placed a blanket over him, brushed his hair away from his face, and kissed him softly on the forehead.

  And Steven smiled. He was asleep just moments later, and slept with a peace that he had not felt in many, many months.

  • • •

  They spent two days hunting Cutters for analysis, while shuttles from the Satia brought men to the surface so they could spend some time on the planet. Contact was made with survivors in Scandinavia, France, and Germany, and families briefly reunited. Information was shared, including details of what had been discovered about the brains of the Others.

  The hunt was a danger
ous business, because they needed to kill the Cutters without damaging them so badly that any Others they might be carrying were destroyed. The Revenge targeted Cutters moving in their spheres, or solitary specimens on the ground. Biela proved adept at using the light cannon to fire single shots, disabling the creatures sufficiently for the Revenge to be able to land and send in soldiers to finish them off. In the end, they succeeded in gathering more than a dozen dead Others. It wouldn’t have been enough for a proper scientific study, but it would do for now.

  And while Fremd and his assistants examined them, Steven, aided by Trask in the cockpit, went looking for the nests of the creatures in the major cities in Ireland and the United Kingdom, bombing and burning as they went. They didn’t get them all—that would have required teams on the ground moving house to house—but they got a lot. More to the point, they targeted clusters of spheres, limiting the Cutters’ movement. In addition, as soon as they felt sure an area was safe enough, they’d search out dust-covered supermarkets and restaurants, laden with tins of food, and jar after jar of sealed jam, sauce, pickles, and tomatoes, and these they piled high in the Revenge, taking them back to the west coast of Ireland to restock the bunker’s stores.

  But this was just a cluster of small islands at the edge of Europe. They couldn’t do this indefinitely. Already they’d been forced to replenish the Revenge’s ammunition from the destroyer’s reserves. They could have exhausted them entirely, and still only have secured a handful of territories from the predations of the Cutters. The Cutters were also getting clever, or the Others in their heads were. They knew they were being hunted from the air, and had started hiding. By the end of five days, there was not a Cutter to be seen, but they were out there, somewhere.

  After the sixth day, Steven took Trask and Fremd aside, and told them that the Revenge would be leaving. He’d thought long and hard about the decision, and discussed it with Alis and Hague. They had agreed with him, Hague more reluctantly than Alis. The war was not here. The war was elsewhere.

  The news did not come as a total surprise to Trask. He had been anticipating it, as had Steven’s mother, although it did not stop her from losing her temper with her son, and scalding tears ran unchecked down her cheeks after he confirmed it to her. Devastated to be upsetting his mother, and also to be leaving her again, Steven promised to return with Paul once the Others and their Illyri allies were defeated, but they both knew it was scant consolation, and quite probably an empty promise too.

 
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