Dominion, p.35
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       Dominion, p.35

           John Connolly
 

  Ani tutted.

  “Tell me something only Steven Kerr and I would know,” said Ani. Her voice was rigid, her jaw firm.

  “Jeez, talk about pressure,” said Steven, feeling a mustache of sweat forming on his upper lip. “Do you have to keep pointing that thing at me?”

  “Yes,” said Ani.

  “Right . . .”

  Steven thought quickly.

  “In the van,” he started, and Ani immediately interrupted.

  “What van?”

  “The van we rode in together, to get away from Edinburgh. White transit van.”

  “Yes?”

  “Well, er, I remember you didn’t pee once all the way to Inverness.”

  “How could I?” snapped Ani. “You were right there!”

  “Exactly,” said Steven. “I was right there, but I could manage quite discreetly with a bottle, if you recall.”

  “Go on,” said Ani.

  “I remember we were in a tiny hidden compartment, and we were thrown about all the way. And you hardly touched your juice—I’m guessing because of the toilet situation—but we ate those horrible hard scones and some squashed bananas, and then you told me about what happened to the Mechs.”

  At this, she remained silent, so he thought it best to continue: “And then there was the time we played piggy-in-the-middle with a bar of soap in the lake. You were the piggy . . .”

  And to Steven’s surprise, the imposing female pointing a gun at his guts started to laugh. At the same time a tear slid down her cheek, so that it was almost as if her own eye and the tattooed eye were weeping together.

  “I thought you were all dead,” Ani said, slipping the pulser discreetly into her pocket.

  Steven shook his head.

  “And I thought you’d gone to the dark side, until Aron explained how much you’ve helped.”

  They smiled at each other. All pretense of formality and distance fell away, and Ani reached for him and hugged him tightly to her. With his face in her hair Steven felt like he was fifteen again, full of hope that all could still be made right in the universe, and he found that his cheeks were wet too. They cried together for a while, close and comfortable as brother and sister.

  Ani composed herself first.

  “What about Syl?” she said. “Is it possible that she could be alive too?”

  “I don’t know,” Steven replied. “I hope so. She was with my brother, but I haven’t seen them for almost two years.”

  “Two years?”

  “Well, in fairness that would only be two days where I left them, so I’m not really worried—not yet.”

  “I don’t understand. What happened, Steven?”

  And so he told her about what had happened beyond the Derith wormhole, and his trip to Krasis, and his time on Earth, and then his reconnection with the Military and their ongoing attempts to sabotage Corps operations—or as much as he dared to share with her.

  For this was no longer his friend from Earth.

  This was the Archmage.

  CHAPTER 63

  The Military fleet was already massing for its assault on Illyr. It had gathered at the Myelen system, having first neutralized the two nearest Diplomatic communications outposts, along with five others chosen at random so as to confuse anyone trying to establish a pattern to the attacks. It was a motley assortment of ships, and included some carriers and destroyers that had once been earmarked for destruction as too old to be of use, alongside vessels seized from the Diplomats in raids—among them two heavy cruisers captured by the crew of the Velder Sel, late of the prison moon of Krasis, and the only survivor from the ships that had been sent by Steven Kerr to wreak havoc on the Diplomatic supply routes.

  Also side by side on the outskirts of the fleet were three ships that had assumed near-legendary status: the Revenge, currently under the command of Alis while Steven was absent; the Satia, which now had a full Military crew, with Hague as executive officer, one step below its captain; and the Varcis, which was an object of particular interest since it was crewed entirely by Mechs. These three vessels formed a separate strike force led by Steven Kerr, who took his orders directly from the commander of all Military forces, Nolis.

  The fleet had also gathered to it various Nomad vessels, for the wanderers had no love for the Diplomats, as well as some Civilian craft that had thrown in their lot with the Military for the same reason as the Nomads. Because of the nature of the fleet, security procedures could not be followed as tightly as Nolis might have wished. It meant that the Military was vulnerable to spies.

  Now, while Steven Kerr spoke with Ani, and Nolis gathered his general staff to finalize the Military’s plan to storm the Illyr system, a Nomad transporter at the rear of the fleet slipped away and made for the Krisen wormhole. It had boosted before anyone even noticed that it was gone.

  PART XV

  APOCALYPSE

  CHAPTER 64

  The universe was black and white; all was stars and wet-tar blackness. There was nothing else, nothing but this.

  Syl’s world had been reduced to sleekness and metal and monochrome. Together with Paul and Thula, she lived in a floating, constricted room in space; nowhere to run, and nowhere much to walk either, unless you counted the crew quarters, the ablution facilities—smaller than those on an airplane—or the tiny galley; no trees, no flowers, no flowing water or bracing wind or heat or cold, or anything much at all, besides the here and now. They had been traveling for months, but it felt like years, or maybe forever.

  Once again, thought Syl, I am in a prison, of sorts. First it had been Edinburgh Castle, then the Sisterhood, and now she was sealed within a battered-looking tin can kicked into the backwaters of the universe. At least this time it had been her choice.

  She knew the Nomad backward by this point, inside and out, for she’d studied its exterior on the countless little cameras that fed information to the mainframe. She’d counted the rivets and the chair legs in the cabin. She’d counted the panels across the ceiling, and the sachets of food that remained, and then she’d zoned out, pretending to sleep, and counted the number of days since she’d last washed properly—not just with a cloth and a bucket—and how long it was since she’d bitten into a fresh piece of fruit, or walked on land, or felt the rain, or seen another of her own kind, another Illyri, and it had stretched into weeks, then months.

  She’d counted the numerous buttons and levers that Thula, and occasionally Paul, used to fly their craft. By this point she was pretty sure she knew what they were all for: that red one was starboard thrusters, that blue one was airflow, the row of yellow lights indicated minute changes in everything from temperature to air pressure to the levels of various gases outside their ship.

  Sometimes she stared at the colors that blinked on the control panel, and when a light flickered on she’d play a game where she named everything she could think of that was that color until it went off again, but she felt like she was forgetting things. Yellow wasn’t her favorite, for while yellow was butter, daffodils, ducklings, and street markings, it was also urine and bile and pus. Blue was better, for it was the sea and Earth’s vivid sky. It was the burst of iridescence on a starling’s wing, it was the wildness in a peacock’s tail. It was sapphires. It was her father’s cremos decanter. It was Paul’s eyes.

  But red lights flashed the most often, and red was so many things—strawberries, ladybirds, clown noses, Christmas baubles, Valentine’s hearts, Aberdeen FC—but these weren’t the things that came to mind. Mostly red was blood, and red was the Nairene Sisterhood.

  And Syl wondered if they could feel her coming.

  • • •

  When they’d left the Cayth and boosted through the Derith wormhole, all had been quiet.

  “I was worried there’d be a welcoming committee,” said Thula.

  “Yeah, me too,” said Paul. “Maybe they didn’t manage to figure out how they lost that first ship, or just got distracted by killing one another.”

  “Hey, ha
ppy birthday, chaps,” said Syl. She laughed at their perplexed faces. “We’re all three years older than we were three days ago—nearly four in fact.”

  “Hey, so I’m twenty-one,” said Paul. “Time to give up the short pants.”

  “And still you don’t look a day over eighteen,” said Thula. “I guess I’m about twenty-three, then. Probably should get my driving license sometime.” He took in the crowded panel of the spaceship he was currently piloting, and snorted with amusement.

  “I suppose I’m legally allowed to drink,” said Syl.

  She and Paul clinked their mugs of tea together.

  Giddy in the moment, they grinned at each other. It had felt like the start of a brave new adventure.

  Together, as a team, they’d plotted their course as the blurred eye that was Derith disappeared behind them, and the babble of the Cayth became a memory. Paul’s hand had strayed absently onto Syl’s back as they spoke, and she’d liked it being there.

  “Basically, we’ll be traveling along two sides of a triangle to get as close to the Marque as we can,” said Paul. “That means heading for Illyr, obviously. It may seem ridiculous, but I figure every other craft in the universe is probably hell-bent on getting from A to B as fast as possible; if we go from A to B with a detour via C, we’re less likely to run into trouble.”

  “I think you mean a detour via Z,” said Thula, tapping at the screen in front of him. “We’re basically going from London to Paris via, er, Moosejaw.”

  “Moosejaw?”

  “Yeah, Moosejaw. It’s a place, okay. In Canada. Or it was a place.”

  “Is that really necessary, Paul?” asked Syl. They had been gone for so long. Even though the future was frightening to her, she wanted to get back to the Marque as quickly as possible. Her destiny lay there.

  “It is. I don’t see any other option; the closer we get to the Illyr system, the harder it’ll be to avoid detection. We need to take the back roads, and then use the back door too.”

  Syl nodded. Many of the portals they were using were chosen from among those that had been revealed to them by the Cayth, and added to the Nomad’s database. Unfortunately, all of the wormholes in the Illyr system were already widely known and heavily trafficked, except for one.

  “Eradoonaliath 748,” she read as Paul enlarged the section of the star map devoted to Illyr. “That’s the Sisterhood’s wormhole at Erebos. Why is it showing up in red?”

  Thula coughed, and looked at Paul.

  “Because it’s not exactly stable,” Paul replied, “and it’s rather small.”

  Thula coughed again, pointedly.

  “Explain, Paul,” said Syl, glancing suspiciously at Thula. “Please.”

  If it was meant to be a request, it sounded like an order.

  “Because the E748 wormhole is technically not big enough for the Nomad,” said Paul.

  “We won’t fit?”

  It was Thula who answered her. “We will fit,” he said, “but we’ll just be too close to the sides for my liking, speaking as the guy flying this rust trap.”

  They both looked at Paul, and he scratched his head with his hands, tousling his hair into a tangle. He seemed troubled.

  “I can’t see another way in,” he said finally. “Every other entrance to the system will be monitored and heavily trafficked, and we’ll simply be blown apart or captured the moment we show ourselves. We’ve no Steven to outmaneuver them, no Rizzo to outshoot them. It’s just us.”

  “Go us,” said Syl flatly. “Go B-team.”

  Thula threw her a look. Wasn’t sarcasm supposed to be his job? Well then, today he’d take the high road.

  “For what it’s worth, folks, I brought my A-game,” he said.

  What remained was the fact that by using the risky Erebos wormhole, they would inevitably attract the attention of anyone who might be on the palace moon, and the information uploaded from the Gradus confirmed that the Sisterhood still kept watch there. They had no illusions about being captured, sooner or later. As soon as they came close to Illyr, they would be taken, but it was essential that they be apprehended by the right side. Their mission was to get Syl back to the Marque. Once she was inside, she would have to find a way to confront the Other that dwelled deep within it—confront it and, if the Cayth were right, destroy it.

  The question, of course, was what would happen to Thula and Paul in the meantime.

  Syl looked at Paul and saw her concern for him reflected in his expression as he turned to her, a frown creasing his baby skin, and she could have cried for him, and for the enormous decisions he had been forced to make, and the ones yet to be made.

  “If I’m going to get squeezed to death, or popped, or whatever else might happen, there’s no finer company to be squeezed or popped with,” she said.

  “Nice,” said Thula, but he was smiling, just a little—and so was Paul. He squeezed Syl’s shoulder in acknowledgment.

  “Ditto, lady.”

  “So let’s get going,” said Syl. “Let’s do it, Lieutenant!”

  After all, what choice did they have?

  • • •

  The days, weeks, and months of moving through space and time, of slipping in and out of unmanned wormholes, always with one eye behind and one in front, always with a finger on a trigger—just in case—had inevitably taken their toll. Cabin fever had set in.

  Paul paced relentlessly, his footfalls like a drumbeat. When he wasn’t pacing, or slouched in the captain’s chair, or sleeping, he read Illyri literature and history, immersing himself in the library uploaded from the Gradus to the Nomad. Thula handled the isolation by singing quietly to himself, or sometimes more loudly as if to try to fill the vastness around them with his impressive baritone. No one minded, because it tamed the silence. Occasionally, when Paul knew a song, he would join in, but human music had largely bypassed Syl inside her castle, so she just listened, and wondered. Thula also wrote, which inspired Syl to begin writing too. She recorded her memories of Earth, of her father, of all that had led them to this point in their lives, leaving out only the Cayth, although in time she would add them to her account, which would come to form a crucial part of the Chronicles.

  But more often than not she zoned out and got lost inside her own head, reaching beyond the windows and airlocks of the Nomad, searching the universe for signs of intelligence, trailing tendrils from her mind toward the distant planets that occasionally bobbed like fruit floating in water below them, or above them, or alongside them. There had to be more, she reasoned, for hadn’t they met the Cayth? And yet they’d seen no other life at all, and she had felt nothing but gnawing loneliness as she stretched her psyche into space. Rocks orbiting distant suns were barren, or molten, or hidden under swirling fumes of brightly hued poison. There was nothing there. Sometimes she clung to Paul, desolate and filled with despair, and sometimes she pushed him away, for she wanted to be alone, to think, to plan.

  Slowly, steadily, they moved closer to the Illyr system.

  CHAPTER 65

  The Nomad arrived in the system that hid the entrance to wormhole E748, without incident, save for the odd scattering of asteroids and the occasional mindless, heedless drone speeding blind to who knew where, and most recently a quick duck away from a distant, dark craft that looked like a transporter, although they could see no markings upon it.

  “Military,” said Thula.

  Paul nodded. It made sense. Only a Military craft would have reason to hide its identity, although he wondered what this one was doing so close to Illyr. That was dangerous. They’d managed to monitor enough distant signals and communications to know that the war still raged. Paul had a brief, foolish notion to go after the transporter and seek its help. Maybe it could take them to someone in the Military who would have a better idea about how they might gain access to the Illyr system without being crushed or spotted, and thence to the Marque.

  He pushed the thought away. He knew that he was frightened, and was looking for a way out. He felt s
ure that he would die near Illyr.

  Syl said nothing. She was wondering what she would find. She was thinking about her father.

  And Ani.

  CHAPTER 66

  The shuttle carrying Ani back to Erebos barely made it through the wormhole intact, and was forced to make an emergency landing on the outskirts of the Palace grounds. Ani was profoundly, painfully sick as soon as they emerged. She had cut her forehead deeply and it would require stitches, while Sessily had fractured her right arm.

  “The wormhole is losing its integrity,” said Jolia, one of the Illyri technicians who came to the aid of the Archmage. “It’s unsafe for further boosts.”

  “Secure it with a warning beacon,” said Ani.

  She was sorry to be losing the Sisterhood’s private wormhole, but grateful that she would never have to use it again. They had been away for two days in total. The delay had been necessary for Ani to receive her new guests.

  From the rear of the shuttle, five figures emerged. They were dressed in what looked like Nairene robes, but Jolia recognized none of them. As far as she was aware, only Sessily and Lista had been on board the shuttle when it left with Aron. Jolia had already been mildly surprised to find the Archmage on the damaged shuttle instead of Lista—the Sisterhood had been informed that the Archmage was “meditating” in her chambers—but she knew enough of Ani’s powers of deception not to be too shocked. An additional five Sisters, all new to her, was another matter entirely.

  As they drew closer, the five strange Sisters drew veils over their heads and faces, but not before Jolia caught a glimpse of damaged skin on the neck of one. Visible in the wound was not flesh or blood, but cables and circuits.

  Ani took Jolia’s chin in her right hand, turning the technician’s face toward her.

  “What do you know of organic circuitry?” Ani asked.

  “A little,” said Jolia. “Actually, more than a little.”

  “Good,” said Ani, “because I have a special job for you . . .”

 
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