Dominion, p.36
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       Dominion, p.36

           John Connolly
 

  CHAPTER 67

  The shifting red mass of E748 bloomed before the Nomad, its edges rippling as they faced it head-on. It was like looking into the open end of a ghostly trumpet, but it wavered and shimmered, and bulges randomly appeared in its surface as if clumsy fingers were prodding against its interior. Something in its left side began to swell like a massive bubble under a layer of skin, tight and angry and seeming ready to pop. Beyond was the suggestion of distant nebula, but nothing more.

  The three passengers on the Nomad stared into the mouth of the wormhole, and tried to hide their fear. For once, none of them seemed to have anything to say.

  Paul made the first move, and his voice and manner were efficient. He was back in charge.

  “Right, crew,” he said, “this is the big one, the last boost. Status, Thula?”

  Thula didn’t even need to look at his system readings.

  “More unstable than previously thought,” he said, “as I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

  “Is it safe, Sergeant?” There was an edge to Paul’s voice.

  “No, Lieutenant, it is not safe.”

  “But is it safe enough?”

  “I couldn’t say. All I can tell you is that the Nomad’s readings caution against entering, or even approaching it, for that matter.”

  “As does my stomach,” whispered Syl from her seat—Rizzo’s old seat—beside the guns.

  “So we can’t use it?” said Paul. He might have been angry, but equally he might have been relieved—it was hard to say.

  “With respect, sir, you have not let the Nomad’s readings stop us before. Or my advice, for that matter.”

  Paul almost smiled.

  “I guess I haven’t. Okay, so what do we think? Syl?”

  “Is there another way?”

  “No, not without retracing our steps and entering through a major wormhole, which would leave us open to being captured by a Corps ship, and imprisoned.”

  “Or worse,” said Thula.

  “I didn’t want to say it, but yes, probably worse.”

  “It’s just semantics anyway,” said Thula. “It’s not like we have much choice.”

  “Well,” said Paul, “it’s not going to get any more stable with us just stalling here, looking at it. Let’s do it. Secure the ship for boosting. Syl, when you’re done, you keep the weapons seat. I’ll copilot. Strap yourselves in tightly. And let’s put on helmets this time, to be safe. Oh, and make sure you have a working oxygen supply too, just in case. We’ll worry about everything else when we make it to the other side.”

  “If we make it to the other side,” muttered Thula, but if Paul heard, he chose to ignore him.

  “One more thing,” said Paul, and he marched over to Syl, took her face in his hands, and kissed her on the lips. It was meant to be a firm, quick peck, but Syl clearly had different ideas, and Paul was happy to go along with it.

  “Oh, come on,” said Thula as the kiss went on and on, and if he could he would have revved the engine in annoyance.

  Paul pulled away, and his face was pink.

  “Sorry,” he said.

  “I’m not,” said Syl, and she was smiling as she buckled herself into her seat. “That was lovely. Ready when you are, Thula.”

  • • •

  Thula tried to hold a steady course, but the pressure inside E748 was tight and constricting, and Syl felt the squeeze worse than ever before, the sensation of being stretched like an elastic band twanged to breaking point. Light split and warped beyond the window as it was distorted against the inner walls of the wormhole, separating into a spectrum, and then another spectrum, and then, as a massive thud smacked the Nomad from the side, an entirely new array of colors seemed to burst like fireworks beside her, sparking images she’d never seen before, and would probably never see again.

  The vibration grew in intensity until they were being shaken wildly. Syl’s head was tossed about on her shoulders, her body straining and bruising as it was thrown against its supports. The Nomad let out a deep moan, and she thought fleetingly of whale song as, almost in slow motion, metal buckled in toward her. For an instant it seemed like a trick of the mind, but she knew that it was very real as a panel collapsed painfully on top of her leg, a great weight that held her in place and would not be lifted.

  And still they were buffeted, a mere paper ship on a sea of madness. A rivet popped from the floor below Syl and shot upward, embedding itself in the roof panel. Another followed, fast and direct as a well-aimed dart. She heard herself shout a warning as more rivets turned into projectiles, and she looked toward Paul and saw that he was twisted in his seat, turned toward her desperately, as powerless as she was. He was wearing his oxygen mask, and she grabbed hers while Paul tried to secure Thula’s as the Zulu battled to control the ship, the muscles in his neck thick with effort, the veins in his temples popping. He shouted something incomprehensible as lights sparkled and played on the cockpit windows before collapsing and floating away in swirls of broken hues. There was an earsplitting screech, and every indicator on the dashboard burst into life at once before forming columns of illumination that stretched like iridescent worms.

  And as Syl watched, the hull of the Nomad crumpled in upon itself, and Paul was struck by a thick lump of metal. They were sent spinning through space as Thula lost all remaining control of the ship. Paul—ominously silent, and limp as a rag doll—was ripped from his seat, his buckle compromised, his straps flapping uselessly, and his body slammed helplessly into Thula. The controls snapped in Thula’s hands as he was thrown away from the panel, his seat wrenched from its moorings, big, strong Thula rendered as fragile as driftwood in a storm of chaos, spinning until he crashed into the far wall, still strapped tightly into his broken seat. A starburst of red exploded onto the shining chrome as his leg made contact, and splintered glass rained down on his head.

  But that wasn’t the worst of it, for the Nomad itself seemed to be breaking up around them, howling and roaring like an animal in great pain. Syl could see the sky where it shouldn’t be seen. She felt cold, so very cold . . .

  They had finally run out of luck.

  The last thing Syl saw was Paul’s sweet, sweet face, his eyes already closed. The last thing she heard was her own anguished scream.

  And still, the faraway stars shone calmly at the end of E748, glimpsed as if through the wrong end of a telescope, eyes blinking but not seeing.

  CHAPTER 68

  . . . perhaps she was dead. There was a very bright light, just like in the movies, but surely, surely death couldn’t hurt this much . . .

  . . . perhaps she was in heaven. Everything was white, and there was music, but surely, surely heaven would not hold such pain . . .

  . . . perhaps she was in hell. There was red, so much red, and she felt so very hot, as if she were burning up, but she was completely numb too, and surely, without a doubt, hell would be riddled with pain . . .

  . . . perhaps she was alive. There were voices, and her head throbbed, and a cool cloth covered her aching eyes. But she found she could remember too—bits, at least, as she recalled Paul in the blood-splattered Nomad, his eyes closed, his body flopping like a doll’s, lifeless and broken, and now she wished more than anything that she was dead.

  Syl started to scream.

  CHAPTER 69

  When Syl woke up, she wasn’t in heaven and she wasn’t in hell. She didn’t know where she was. She was lying on her back in a small, white space with curved walls, a closed door, and a circular window in the ceiling opening up into a star-filled black sky. She winced against the whiteness around her, forcing her pupils to close, and then she focused more slowly, taking in her environment. Tubes ran in and out of her body. Her head itched, but when she tried to lift her hand to scratch it, she found her arms were strapped to the bed beneath her, loosely enough to move a little, but tightly enough that she couldn’t reach anything.

  “Hey!” she cried as she pulled against the bonds, but her voice was hoarse and weak.
“Untie me!”

  She heard a babble of muffled voices, drawing nearer, and she yelled again, louder now, just as the door flew open, and in swept two females, both wearing the distinctive red robes of the Nairene Sisterhood.

  “What is it?” said one, looking around as if expecting an invasion. She was tall and well rounded, and her plump, pale face was tattooed with shapes that might well have spelled words in an unknown alphabet, although without the translation they looked like random doodles. “Why are you shouting?”

  “Where am I?” said Syl, still struggling against her stays. “Am I a prisoner?”

  “Well, you’re not exactly going anywhere, if that’s what you mean,” said the other female. She was somewhat older, but not nearly as old as her snow-white hair might have suggested. She kept it short, so it sprouted from her head like the bristles on a broom, and she wore an expression of restrained amusement.

  “Where am I?” said Syl.

  “The Palace of Erebos, in our medical suites.”

  “But you’re Nairenes.”

  “Obviously. We control this facility.”

  “How did I get here?”—and then Syl remembered, and she nearly choked on the next words as they spluttered, panicked, from her mouth: “Where’s Paul?”

  “Paul?” said the white-haired Sister.

  “She means one of the humans, I think, Velarit,” said the other.

  “Yes, the human men! What happened to them?”

  “They’re alive, which is about the best that can be said for them,” said the Sister called Velarit. “And please stop shouting. We thought there was a problem.”

  “Of course there’s a problem!” cried Syl. “I’m tied to a bed, and I don’t know what the hell is going on. I need some answers.”

  Velarit ignored this.

  “Syl Hellais,” she said, “I shall inform the Archmage that you have awoken. She is anxious to see you.”

  “The Archmage?” The horror echoed loudly in Syl’s voice.

  “Naturally,” said Velarit. “Who else? She has taken a deep personal interest in your progress. As soon as she knows you’re awake, I imagine she’ll be here promptly.”

  “No!” shouted Syl.

  “And please,” said the second Sister, “be more polite to Her Eminence than you are being to us. It is because of her that your life has been saved.”

  “Only so she can watch me die again, more slowly,” said Syl, and she was furious to find that tears of fear and self-pity had filled her eyes, and were flowing down her cheeks. Her nose started running too, but there was nothing she could do to stop it, and no way to wipe it. She sniffed loudly. “Please, please just untie me.”

  But the Nairenes departed without another word. Syl sank back against her bed. What had she expected? How could she have been so foolish? She was on Erebos, far from the Marque, and back in the hands of the Archmage.

  • • •

  Minutes later the door opened again and through it glided a figure in deep red flowing robes, veiled in familiar fine lace, straight and poised, moving with the elegance of a creature fully at ease in its skin. She was alone, and pointedly shut the door before turning back to face the bed, slipping the veil onto her shoulders as she did so.

  “Ani?” said Syl. She’d have recognized that silver hair anywhere, but this Ani was markedly taller, distinctly older, fully grown and fully beautiful. But that wasn’t all that was different about her: her cheeks were now adorned with intricate tattoos of spiraling tiny-leafed vines, and from them watched the tattooed eyes of the Nairene Sisterhood.

  “Syl!” cried Ani, and she flung herself down beside her beloved friend, burying her face in Syl’s neck and crying fat, wet tears into her hair.

  “Oh, Syl,” she said. “Four years gone. Nearly five years, even, and I thought that you were dead!”

  Syl couldn’t move with the weight of Ani on her chest, and the ties at her wrists meant that she couldn’t return the embrace either, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to. Four years, said Ani, but for Syl it was a matter of mere months. The things that had been said on their last parting still rang in her ears, and then there was the small matter of Ani’s red robes, and the mark of the Sisterhood indelibly staining her skin.

  Ani pulled away, looking confused.

  “Ah,” she said, “you’re still restrained.” She laughed as she stood up—a dry, forced, adult laugh so unlike the teenage giggle Syl remembered—and moved to undo the stays. “It was just to stop you damaging yourself. You were unconscious, but still you kept trying to scratch the wound on your head.”

  She stopped what she was doing, and stared into Syl’s face, studying her.

  “Look at you, though,” she continued. “You’ve hardly changed at all. You still look so young—”

  “I don’t understand,” interrupted Syl. “What are you doing here, Ani? Where’s Syrene? Why are you wearing those robes?”

  Ani looked surprised, and then she bit her lip as if to control a grin, and for an instant there was a glimpse of her mischievous younger self. But immediately it was gone again, and she was an adult once more.

  “Of course—you don’t know yet! Well, how could you?”

  She twirled, smiling as Syl watched, perplexed, and red silk shimmied and fell around Ani in slow, lazy waves.

  “Lady Syl Hellais,” she said, “you are looking at none other than the new leader of the Nairene Sisterhood. I am the Archmage Ani.”

  In response, Syl said a very rude word.

  Ani glowered at her, her face turning red, and Syl looked back, filled with dismay and disbelief. As they sized each other up, like two dogs before a fight, Syl did what came naturally: she opened her mind, searched for Ani, and found her. Syl felt Ani’s thoughts bubbling hot, churning around her as though she’d immersed herself in a pot of boiling oil, and she experienced the flashes of anger, hurt, pride, arrogance, and power, and with them the truth of what Ani had said, followed briefly by something else, something like love—before Ani’s thoughts were closed to her with the force of a trap snapping shut.

  “No!” snarled Ani. “You stop that!”

  Syl withdrew, and the old friends continued to regard each other suspiciously—one clearly older than the other, fully grown, and self-assured like she’d never been before, the other younger, but angrier. So much angrier.

  “How?” said Syl finally. “How could you?”

  “From where I’m standing, I’d say you’re hardly in a position to criticize me,” said Ani.

  “But the leadership of the Sisterhood, Ani? Have you lost your mind? I knew of your loyalty to it because you remained on Erebos, but to become its Archmage . . .”

  She looked away from her old friend, finding herself repulsed by the tattoos so reminiscent of those she’d last seen on Syrene’s cheeks, by that cold, dead eye that nonetheless seemed to be watching from a place beyond here, where there was no life, and no hope.

  “I stayed because I wanted to fix things,” said Ani. “I told you that—and it’s exactly what I’m doing.”

  “By becoming what we hated?”

  “What you hated, Syl, not we. Not I. You were always determined to believe the Sisterhood was completely bad, but you were wrong. We were a noble order before Syrene corrupted us, and I am reclaiming that nobility for all my Sisters. Syl, I’ve done so much already, but with you beside me I could achieve so much more. I would like you to join us. Put on your robes again, and help me to cure this society of its ills.”

  “And if I won’t?”

  “Then you’re free to go.”

  “Really? But I’m tied to a bed.”

  Ani sighed, as if frustrated by a particularly irksome child, and resumed loosening Syl’s bonds.

  “There,” she said when she’d done. “I repeat, you’re free to go.”

  Syl sat up and swung her legs around, but immediately she felt dizzy, nearly toppling off the bed in the process, and Ani leaped to steady her, holding her tight. Syl leaned against
her, her head swimming, her heart beating so hard she could see it pulsing in her eyes, and she found that Ani was strong, and steady, and the touch and smell of her were achingly familiar. They stayed like that for a long time, neither saying anything, neither knowing what to say. Almost shyly, Ani’s stroked Syl’s back, and Syl let her. Now that she was sitting, she wished that she had stayed lying down. Her head throbbed, and her body felt so weak that, had Ani not been supporting her, she would have fallen to the ground. Her eyes closed. She had dreamed that Ani was the Archmage. She had dreamed of wormholes.

  “Ani,” she murmured finally. “How did I get here? What happened?”

  “We found you. We were monitoring the wormhole because it was due to collapse—just like you’re about to do, I think.”

  Ani eased Syl back onto her sickbed.

  “Paul,” said Syl. “Where’s Paul?”

  Ani pulled away, but she left a steadying hand on Syl’s shoulder.

  “He’s not . . . great.”

  “But alive?”

  “Yes, he is that. He’s in a medically induced coma. When we found him we didn’t think he’d make it, but the medics resuscitated him—several times, I believe—and they say he’ll recover in time. Perhaps less handsome than before, but only a little. His friend Thula claims that a broken nose adds character to a man’s face.”

  “Thula! What of Thula?”

  “Ah, Thula. Actually, I was delighted to meet him. Steven mentioned him repeatedly, and favorably.”

  As Ani casually dropped Steven’s name into the conversation, she could barely conceal her pleasure at Syl’s surprise. Steven too was alive!

  “You saw Steven?”

  “Only the other week. He’s with the Military, but that’s a conversation for another time. Goodness, we really do have a lot to catch up on, don’t we? Perhaps now that you seem to have stopped being quite so angry, and if you feel up to it, we can start to talk. Properly. Like adults.”

  Ani summoned a nursing Sister, and Syl was given a syrupy liquid to drink, and an injection that cleared away some of her nausea and sharpened her thinking a little. Feeling slightly more in control of herself, Syl arranged her thoughts.

 
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