Dominion, p.33
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       Dominion, p.33

           John Connolly
 

  “You’d better be back,” said Katherine Kerr fiercely, “or I swear I’ll come and get you, both of you, and when I find you, you’ll wish I hadn’t.”

  And then she found herself unable to say any more, for she was forcing down an animal howl of desolation. Her son was returning to the stars, to a war in which the possibility of victory seemed remote. If her two boys died out there on a distant world, she might never learn of it, and the rest of her life would be spent wondering.

  But Steven trusted this Illyri named Syl, the one whom Paul apparently loved, the one who had saved her sons from the gallows. Syl gave him hope, he said, and his mother latched on to some of that hope, and fanned the flames of it.

  And Fremd gave them more hope. Of the specimens that had been brought to him, half showed serious signs of deterioration, and three more were in the first stages of it. It seemed the original sample was not an isolated case.

  On the morning of the Revenge’s departure, messages were received from Copenhagen and Paris. Signs of nerve degeneration had been found in the brains of more of the Others.

  The creatures were dying.

  • • •

  The goodbyes were short, but no less sad for it. They exchanged their hugs, their handshakes, their kisses underground. Then the crew of the Revenge suited up and left the bunker. They waved one last time from the door of the ship before it closed and they ascended. Within days, the Revenge and the Satia had left the solar system.

  For the first time in two decades, no Illyri ships flew above the earth.

  PART XIV

  THE RUINS OF EREBOS

  CHAPTER 59

  Ani waited in one of the towering crystal atriums of the Palace of Erebos, looking out over the Grand Hall that stood at the center of the complex, like a sparkling crystal heart, but it was a heart that had ceased to beat long ago. The little jewel of a moon now lay silent, the historic celebrations and commemorations it had hosted in its fabled heyday just the glamorous ghosts of another era. It had been this way for years now, shrouded in quiet save for the rustle of its maintenance staff of engineers and caretakers, all handpicked from within the Sisterhood. Since the brutal events that had provided the backdrop to Syrene’s rushed wedding ceremony over four years previously, the Sisterhood had maintained control of Erebos, declaring itself to be custodian of the historic buildings until a time when peace might be restored to the ravaged Illyri race. Nobody had complained, for both the Military and the Diplomatic Corps were already neck-deep in bloodshed and tangled strategy; the fate of the great Palace of Erebos had been the least of their concerns. Naturally, the Sisterhood ensured that it took payment from the authorities for this custodianship, but in truth it suited Ani very well to have these private, elegant spaces to do with as she wished, unseen, and unheard.

  The Palace had sustained catastrophic systemic damage during the attack by the Nomad, when it rescued Syl from the moon. While the Nomad had opened fire on only a small portion of the Palace, all of its structures were interconnected, and so harm to one meant harm to all. Blood still stained the floor, and the stars left by pulse blasts were burned onto the glass like lines of braille, ending at the exclamation mark where the Nomad ’s cannon had ripped a new exit into a sealed tunnel, commencing the destruction of the ancient structure.

  Yet again, Ani traced the story of Syl’s escape with her eyes, even though she knew its details by heart. She kept the scene untouched as a memento, because everything that had happened that day felt as though it had befallen someone else, like a scene in a book or film the title of which she had forgotten, with an ending that was similarly lost to her. All she knew was that it had broken her heart.

  • • •

  In a rarely visited section of Erebos, near the vast catering and service kitchens on the far side of the glimmering Palace, rooms were being prepared for the arrival of the terrorist known as Aron. Ani had first encountered Aron, a member of the Military, on Earth, when she was but a child. Back then, Aron had been Captain Peris’s second in command in the Edinburgh Castle Guard, but he’d been redeployed from Earth soon after Peris left for the Brigades, and now was leader of one of the Military units fighting the Diplomats in the systems closest to Illyr. For his insurrection, Aron was a named and wanted traitor, with a death sentence already passed upon him.

  However, Ani remembered Aron as being smart, and calculating, and he’d always been friendly too, so when she had learned that he was believed to be central to the Military efforts, she had sent him secret word, evoking Peris’s name. In time he had responded, and so she had courted him until she earned his trust, or at least until he trusted her motives enough to meet with her.

  At that first meeting, he had been angry. Very angry.

  “We can help each other,” she had promised him.

  “Do you know that some of us are starving out there, Ani, stuck in the cesspits of outer space, dying like rats lost down a sewer, and now we’re rats running out of even crap to eat? Do you understand me when I tell you how my troops suffer?”

  The Diplomats deliberately targeted planets capable of sustaining life, knowing that these were most likely to be bases for Military operations. It meant that the Military struggled to grow food, and most of its outlying units were reduced to scavenging, and targeting Diplomatic supply routes.

  “Yes,” said Ani, “I do understand you, and that is why I am glad you agreed to see me today, Aron. I have news for you—a symbol of my goodwill, if you will.”

  Ani walked over to a carved cabinet and opened it.

  “I have hybrid seeds,” she said, removing a small glass vial from a hidden drawer inside. She handed it to Aron, and he examined the label.

  “Given that these are coming from you, I’m presuming they’re not just any ordinary seeds,” he said.

  “Of course not! These are the latest genetic modifications, unknown even on Illyr. They’re suitable for growth in the poorest soils, particularly sand or rock, for they take their nourishment from the air. The soil is just to anchor them—even broken glass would suffice. And yet they grow three times as fast, while containing many times the standard nutritional value.”

  “But what about water?” he said, frowning at the vial.

  “That’s the clincher, for these little seeds will germinate in salt water with no trouble at all—no need for desalination. That’s precisely what my labs have been working on. Of course, it doesn’t have to be salt water; any alkaline solution up to a pH of eight-point-four will do, and it goes without saying that they’re self-propagating. It was a significant challenge, of course, but one that my scientists turned out to be more than up to.”

  And it had been her scientists, not those on Illyr. They had achieved these little miracles unaided by the Others, relying instead on the Sisterhood’s oldest resource: knowledge. At Ani’s command and by her express wish, Avila Minor was the only part of the Illyr system in which Illyri did not carry Others inside them. The Marque had been quietly purged—or most of it had. The thing in its depths remained a threat.

  “And I brought several more vials with different varietals,” Ani continued, “so you’ll even have a selection to grow. I’ll have them packed on the ship when you leave. Plant them when you get back and you should be harvesting within a month.”

  Ani thought there might actually have been traces of tears in Aron’s eyes. Whatever he had been expecting when he came here, it was not this. He started to thank her effusively, but she held up her hand, and they got down to business. The seeds carried a price. In return for them, she wanted the Corps’ Alien communications relay taken down, if only temporarily—just long enough for the Diplomats to have to reroute their communications, just long enough for her Sisters to infiltrate them, and crack the code. Aron agreed to see to it. It suited the Military’s purposes anyway, because it would disrupt Diplomatic communications for the coming Military assault.

  Ever since that first meeting, Ani and Aron had enjoyed a cautious, highly s
ecretive arrangement: she let him know of the intended attacks that would cause the biggest losses of life, and he told her . . . well, he told her what he could, and what he dared—anything that might support his quest to win the backing of the Sisterhood and its new Archmage.

  Aron didn’t yet understand that, even under Ani, the Sisterhood only backed itself.

  But he did know about the Others. He knew that there was a strange force intervening in Illyri affairs. The discovery by the Military leadership of the truth about the Others had come about when a Diplomatic vessel was found drifting in the Cormor system: a hull breach had left its crew dead, and frozen. Two had been carrying Others, and one had been sufficiently alive to attempt to infect the Military salvage team, although their suits had saved them. The second Other had been retrieved intact, and it was this that had confirmed rumors long whispered. The information remained restricted, though; Aron had been allowed into the loop because one of his tasks was to convince, via a network of sympathizers, important Illyri with no love for the Diplomats to side with the Military. That was one of the reasons why he had accepted Ani’s original request to meet, but it turned out that Ani needed no convincing about the Others.

  Aron met Ani every few months, or more frequently if one of them requested it. The soldier flew in undetected on a nippy red Sisterhood ship that picked him up on the other side of a small, somewhat unstable wormhole—unimaginatively, Ani referred to it as the Wobbly wormhole—designated solely for the use of the Sisterhood, an arrangement reached by Syrene with the Diplomatic Corps, and one that Ani had seen no reason to discontinue.

  Now, as Ani received word of the incoming Nairene transport, she hurried to await Aron. The rooms in which they would meet were in an isolated, heavily shielded lodge at the eastern edge of the Palace, far from any prying eyes and ears, although Ani was certain that Erebos was now almost as secure as the Marque. Aron was escorted to the lodge straight from the little transporter, his face pale. Ani thought she detected a whiff of vomit when he entered the room too, but she said nothing, not wishing to embarrass him.

  “It is good to see you again, Aron,” she said, moving to embrace him. He turned his cheek from hers crossly.

  “I’m not sure I can come through that damn wormhole anymore, Ani. I swear it’s getting worse. Today it was like being squeezed through a bottleneck while someone repeatedly kicked me up the backside. Someone with hooves.”

  She put her hand on his arm gently, ignoring his casual use of her first name. Aron was old-school Military; despite his mission to gain support for his side, the Sisterhood retained an air of toxicity for him, and he viewed it at best as some outdated bastion of Illyri privilege, and, at worst, as the enemy. He chose to have faith in Ani because he knew her from their past life on Earth, and because her information had saved many souls in these violent times; but for her Nairene title and its attendant airs and graces he had little tolerance, and for her organization he had only disdain. It didn’t matter though. What mattered was their connection.

  “I’m sorry, Aron,” she said, and she meant it.

  “There must be another way.”

  “Well, why don’t you leave it with me? I’ll see what I can come up with.”

  And yes, of course there were other wormholes, but she was loath to reveal their locations, not yet, for the very fact of the Wobbly wormhole’s instability was its security: it would be too dangerous to bring a decent-sized ship through, and Ani didn’t want to open any larger doors in the cosmos that might give Aron’s troops ideas about using what would be a handy, unmonitored shortcut straight to the Illyr system, should they get the urge to ratchet their insurgency up a level.

  “I would be grateful,” said Aron.

  “Come,” she said, taking him by the elbow, “let us take some refreshment. How about a drink to steady your nerves—some Meldrae, perhaps?—and then we can talk. Would you like some time to freshen up first? I can have you shown to a private room.”

  Aron accepted the goblet of frosted spirits she poured for him—Meldrae was a strong, expensive, and rare liquor distilled from the leaves of the winter ferns of the snowcaps—before he allowed Lista to lead him away to an ablution facility to take a minute for himself. Ani stepped over to a window, looking out past the elaborate stonework and carvings into the gardens beyond. They were overgrown and tangled now, but she preferred Erebos this way, and had instructed that it be left to grow wild, for she felt that all the manicured and wrangled grandeur of the buildings needed a counterpoint.

  “Much appreciated, Ani,” Aron said, reentering the room, and going straight to refill his cup from the decanter. “You don’t mind? That’s really delicious. Beats the rotgut we have on the other side of the wormhole.”

  She smiled winningly, and said, “Then I shall have to sneak a skin or two into the ship with you, when you leave.”

  “I think you may just have made the trip worthwhile,” he chuckled. “Now tell me, how is Danis? He is well, I presume? Comfortable?”

  Ani did not bother to enlighten Aron about the poor state of her relationship with her father. It would serve no purpose.

  “Oh, perfectly well. He and Peris are enjoying their retirement together as best as they can, though of course he—my father—misses my mother terribly, as we all do.”

  Aron scratched his chin as he considered what she said. His expression was shrewd.

  “I’ve heard some say that they’re little better than prisoners,” said Aron.

  “If so, then it’s also a little better than being dead,” said Ani. If Aron knew that Ani had brokered the agreement with the Diplomats to spare Danis and Peris more brutal imprisonment, or even a discreet execution, he did not say. In a way, Ani was her father’s jailer.

  “Like Andrus,” said Aron.

  “Yes, just like Andrus.”

  “That old turncoat got everything that was coming to him! What did he think would happen if he got into bed with the Sisterhood?”

  “Careful, Aron,” said Ani. “Remember the company you’re keeping.”

  Aron grunted, and took some more Meldrae.

  Ani usually kept her feelings about Lord Andrus private. He had been as dear as an uncle to her, and she had been appalled at the manner of his death. Andrus had also been Syl’s only living relative, and she knew how her father’s death would have devastated her former best friend. With Andrus gone, all traces of Syl’s genetic heritage were lost, scattered as dust to the stars, just as Ani believed Syl had been when she entered the Derith wormhole, and was destroyed.

  But was that true? The One had heard echoes of Syl . . .

  “Andrus had one of the Others in his head,” she told Aron. “It was put there by Syrene.”

  She had shared this with no one until now. She was not even sure why she was telling Aron. Perhaps it was his use of the word “turncoat.” Andrus had not been a traitor. Andrus had been consumed by the thing inside him.

  “It makes sense,” said Aron. “I did not know for certain, but some in the Military suspected as much after the existence of these parasites was confirmed. It doesn’t excuse his betrayal, though.”

  “He was not himself,” said Ani. “Hatred for him is wasted.”

  Aron shook his head.

  “No, my hate keeps me from giving up,” he said. “My hate keeps me fighting, even when I’m not sure what I’m fighting for anymore.”

  “Well, if it helps, I have the thorium you need for your reactors. Or I can tell you where to get it, at least.”

  “Really?” Aron looked at Ani as though she were a magician, and she was gratified.

  “Yes. Within the coming weeks, a delivery will be dispatched to the Marque, via the Quelu wormhole. There is still thorium mined beyond it, despite notifications that the mine had closed. Watch the wormhole, and be ready to seize the shipment, for it will be full to bursting, and it must never get to my Marque. If it reaches Avila Minor I’ll have to find a use for it, and I don’t have one, despite the lies I to
ld Vena.”

  Aron looked at her in amazement.

  “I’m sorry, Ani, but I don’t remember you being quite this smart back on Earth. Part of me still thinks of you as younger than you are—and I feel that now, somehow, you have become older than you look. It only feels like yesterday that you and Syl Hellais were skulking about, getting into trouble, bunking off school, but I assumed she was the brains behind your little operation. You continue to astonish me.”

  “Yesterday, and a million years ago, Aron. Much has changed. I have changed. I live in the largest library in the universe. I do a lot of reading.”

  “Well,” said Aron, raising his glass, “I’ll drink to that, if your reading has got me more thorium. Thank you for your help.”

  “Aron,” she said seriously, “you realize that there is a price for my help. What can you offer me in return? After all, you requested this meeting.”

  Aron reached into his leather satchel, and produced a small transmitting device.

  “I can offer you this,” he said.

  An image was projected into the air before them, wavering at first and then focusing as his hand steadied and the old piece of equipment warmed up. Ani stared at the picture that appeared, little more than an electronic snapshot really, showing the face of a young human male, with long brown hair that grew over his deep-set blue eyes. Behind him was a band of older humans, rugged, square-jawed, scarred, tattooed, but Ani barely registered them. Instead she looked at the boy. At the man. He was caught in the moment, brushing his unkempt fringe away, one eyebrow arched, his mouth slightly open, and Ani studied his features for a long while, unable to form words. It was simply not possible.

  “You do know him, right?” said Aron when her silence became uncomfortable. “Because he claims to know you. He said he was with you in the Highlands, and at Dundearg.”

 

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