Dominion, p.38
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       Dominion, p.38

           John Connolly
 

  Syl blanched at the mention of her old enemy’s name. Vena, who blamed Syl for the death of her former lover, Sedulus, had tried to have her killed on the Marque. Syl had presumed that Vena was still back on Earth. Actually, she’d been hoping that Vena might have died, preferably painfully.

  “Together, Vena and Dyer have proved to be a considerable threat,” Ani continued, “and even my spies have struggled to infiltrate their lair, although some progress has recently been made. Whatever, the future of our society may well be decided in a matter of days.”

  Ani put her head in her hands, as if carrying the weight of all she’d just said had been a heavy burden, and when she spoke again her voice was muffled.

  “I can’t predict the outcome, but I do know that it will be horrific. Countless lives will be lost, and at the end our true enemy will remain undefeated. The Others will prevail, and continue to contaminate whichever side triumphs.”

  “And which of those sides are you on in all this?”

  “I am on the side of the Sisterhood.”

  “That’s no answer, Ani.”

  “Then I am on the side of the Sisterhood above all others, and after that I will ally myself with the just. The Corps and its allies have shown themselves unfit to rule. They have infected our race with an alien parasite, which, if it is allowed, will eventually consume us entirely, just as it has consumed life on Earth, and who knows how many other worlds. And—”

  She paused.

  “Go on,” said Syl. Tentatively, she made forays into Ani’s thoughts, and saw a red wall of rage fractured by a fissure of fear.

  “The Securitats are planning a move against the Sisterhood. It seems that I have goaded Vena for too long, and she has always had her eyes on the Marque. To seize control of the Marque, she will have to kill me. But I will not permit it to fall to one such as her. The Sisterhood will defend the Marque, and give what aid we can to the Military.”

  Ani sat back in her chair.

  “So,” she said, “here we are. I have bared my soul to you, but you have not bared yours to me.”

  “You haven’t told me everything yet,” said Syl. “You haven’t mentioned my father.”

  It was as though she had punched Ani, and the girl behind the tattooed mask of the Archmage was revealed once more.

  “No. Syl, it’s—”

  “Just tell me.”

  Ani couldn’t meet Syl’s eyes.

  “I made a mistake,” she said.

  “What mistake?”

  “I underestimated Syrene. When I gave her to the One, I assumed that it would simply take her as it had taken Ezil and the rest of the First Five. But there was a link between the Other in her head and the parasite that had taken over your father. Maybe it was because he had become infected through Syrene, and the entity that had infected him was a product of its spores. It was her revenge, Syl. She couldn’t harm me, and she couldn’t get to you, but she could hurt him. She could hurt him so badly.”

  Syl began to weep.

  “She killed him, Syl. She instructed the Other in his head to destroy him along with itself, and it did. I’m so sorry.”

  Syl turned her back on her friend, faced the wall, and let her grief overcome her.

  CHAPTER 71

  The spies—the traitors—brought the news to Dyer at the Tree of Lights. The Military fleet was assembling at Myelen.

  Dyer did not react instantly. He took time to think, then gave his orders: a pincer movement, with a Diplomatic task force descending on Myelen on separate fronts, using the two wormholes in the system—Myelen 1 and Myelen 2—to launch a devastating surprise attack. Dyer presented the plan to his commanders, but most of them were career Diplomats who had found themselves elevated to command status. Only a handful of Dyer’s commanders had any battle experience, and their objections to the splitting of the Diplomatic fleet were overruled in the rush to capitalize on the new intelligence received. This was their chance to strike at the Military while its forces were packed into a single system, with nowhere to run. It was how wars were won.

  Later, the Chronicles would record that President Krake himself tried to change Dyer’s mind—his plan for surprising the Military required him not only to divide the task force, but also to deplete by half the fleet defending the Illyr system—but by then the die was cast. The first component of the Diplomatic force would move in on Myelen 1 from Obruscar, the main Corps base just one wormhole boost away from Illyr, and only two boosts from Myelen. The second, though, would require many more boosts in order to reach the second Myelen wormhole, and the shortest route would take it close to the Derith wormhole.

  Dyer had been advised of the disappearance of the Gradus at that same wormhole, but his Nomad spies informed him that the Gradus had been captured by Military forces, and now formed part of its battle fleet. Satisfied that there was no reason to be concerned about Derith, despite the waves of unease coming off the Other in his head, Dyer gave the order for half of his task force to pass within sight of it on its way to Myelen.

  CHAPTER 72

  When Ani returned the next morning, concerned for her friend and troubled afresh by the part she had played in the death of Andrus, she found Syl sitting upright on the edge of her bed. She was scrubbed clean, though her face was pale and her eyes were red from crying. She had changed out of her white hospital gown, and was wearing the red robes of the Sisterhood.

  “What on earth are you doing, Syl?” said Ani.

  “I’m giving myself to the Sisterhood,” Syl replied bleakly. “Again.”

  Ani was all but dumbstruck. “But why would you do that?” she asked.

  Impatiently, Syl brushed a runaway tear from her cheek.

  “I can’t hide forever, Ani. I must face the One. I don’t have a hope in hell of winning if I don’t even turn up for the fight, do I?”

  “But . . . but you could die. You will—you’ll die, I know it!”

  “Someone has to do something, Ani. What if I’m the only one who can?”

  Ani was shaking her head—no, no, no—and her features crumpled in devastation as she battled the potential horror of losing her friend, all over again.

  “Please no, Syl,” she said. “I can’t. I couldn’t bear it.”

  “You said that the One wants me,” Syl said, and she found a new firmness both in voice and in purpose as she spoke. “Well, I want it too, Ani, and you’re going to give us both exactly what we desire.”

  • • •

  The Diplomatic task force moved through space: five carriers and eight destroyers, supported by twelve heavy cruisers. To starboard, the Derith wormhole rippled.

  Rippled, then bloomed.

  The Cayth fleet emerged so suddenly that even the lightest of the task force vessels did not have time to come about before the first of the torpedoes were unleashed upon them. Had any of the Diplomatic crews survived long enough, they might have glimpsed a single female figure standing on the otherwise empty bridge of the Cayth command ship, a goddess of war made flesh. Fara watched as the Illyri were utterly destroyed, and their vessels—now cleansed entirely of tens of thousands of crew—left to drift like ghost ships through the blackness.

  The Cayth retreated back into the Derith wormhole, and it was as if they had never been.

  CHAPTER 73

  The Diplomats’ communications arrays were down, so even if the Derith component of the task force had made its rendezvous point, there would have been no means of communicating that fact to the other half at the Corps base at Obruscar. The commander at Obruscar, Deyla, unable to raise her opposite number, Ilar, sought clarification of her orders from Dyer. Despite the urgings of Krake and others to recall Deyla, Dyer decided to gamble.

  The order was given to attack the Military fleet.

  • • •

  On Illyr, a pair of assault cruisers stood ready upon the massive landing pad at the heart of the Securitat headquarters in Upper Tannis. Inside each craft was a strike team composed entirely of female S
ecuritats, heavily armed and clear on their orders: to secure the main control facility on the Marque, subdue all opposition, and apprehend and execute the Archmage Ani. The Securitats involved had all been warned of the possibility of psychic manipulation, and would shoot her on sight.

  Vena waited in the control room by the landing pad. She was in contact with Dyer’s senior aide, Neian. As soon as the Military fleet was engaged, and a Diplomatic victory assured, Neian would instruct her to seize the Marque.

  Vena was calm. She had waited a long time for this. A few more hours would make no difference. She sat quietly, a whetstone before her, sharpening the knife that would cut the throat of the Archmage.

  CHAPTER 74

  The Battle of Myelen—the greatest confrontation between the rival Illyri factions since the First Civil War—was a disaster on many fronts. The loss of life dwarfed even the attack on Melos Station, which had marked the start of the conflict, and no Illyri family was left untouched by it. The Chronicles attest that Illyri society never recovered from Myelen and its aftermath.

  Most of all, it was a catastrophe for the Diplomats. The Military fleet was taken by surprise as the Diplomatic task force emerged from Myelen 1, and five ships, including the great carrier Tesos, were lost in a matter of minutes, but years of guerrilla warfare had taught the Military tactics that were beyond the capacity of Deyla and her captains to deal with. Had the Derith force survived, it is possible that the attack might have succeeded, but as soon as the first shock of their appearance had faded, the Diplomats found themselves facing not a bunched fleet of vessels, but ships diverging in multiple directions before they converged again as small, disciplined squadrons, each with a specific target. Already they were inflicting damage on the Diplomats, and distracting them from the larger hunt.

  Meanwhile, the Military vessels, including the six surviving carriers and more than a dozen destroyers, began boosting out of Myelen, to make straight for Illyr. The Military had been poised for its own assault on the Illyr system within hours, and all plans were in place. When the order to attack was given, its commanders made their move, aware now that at least a section of the Diplomatic fleet was tied up at Myelen. The Military fleet emerged through the Melos wormhole, the place where so many of their fellow soldiers had died.

  Anticipating some possible level of sentimentality and desire for revenge on the part of the Military, Dyer had fortified Melos, but with one quarter of his fleet now engaged in a battle that it was destined to lose, and another quarter floating lifeless near Derith, his forces were hopelessly divided. The Military had expected to encounter some opposition at Melos, and had prepared for a hard battle, but Dyer’s combination of one carrier, two destroyers, and a number of heavy cruisers was not sufficient to hold back the Military. The Military destroyer Entia, the first vessel to emerge at Melos, was torn apart by the minefield laid on Dyer’s instructions, but in doing so it carved a path for the ships that followed, as well as alerting their commanders to the presence of the mines and causing them to take action to destroy them.

  Hopelessly outgunned, the Diplomatic ships turned tail and ran.

  • • •

  News of the Military incursion reached Vena on the landing pad just seconds before sirens began to wail in Securitat headquarters, echoed by similar warnings from Corps facilities nearby. The order came through from Neian: Vena and her Securitats were to stand down, and await further instructions from the Vice President. There was to be no assault on the Marque.

  Vena tore the communicator from her ear.

  “Marshal?” asked one of the control room staff, who had listened to the exchange with Neian. “What are your instructions?”

  “Tell the pilots to prepare for liftoff,” she said.

  “But the orders were—”

  “I give the orders here,” said Vena. “So clear me a flight path. Now.”

  • • •

  At Melos, two craft curled away from the main fleet. They were the Varcis and the Revenge, and together they set course for the Marque.

  CHAPTER 75

  The Marque’s defenses were on high alert. The Archmage had ordered that no ship was to be permitted to land unless first cleared by her. All vessels approaching the Marque were to be tracked by its weapons systems, and automatically targeted. If they did not break off their approach, they were to be destroyed.

  The Marque was huge, and thousands of Sisters lived within its walls. Ani had exiled or isolated all of Syrene’s loyalists, and taken care of the spies that Dyer had cultivated, but even she could not purge the Sisterhood of every possible source of opposition and dissent. There were those who resented her for her youth and her arrogance, and others who hated her simply for being Earth-born. Some were ambitious and dreamed of being Archmage, and some knew that any such hopes for themselves were futile, but were angry and bitter enough to destroy that which they could never aspire to be.

  Vena had found one such Sister, just one, and had carefully groomed her during the years of Ani’s rule, keeping her identity a secret, holding her in reserve for just such a day as this one. Her name was Soler, and she and Ani had one thing in common beyond the robes that they wore: Soler, like Ani, had loved the Gifted called Tanit.

  Now, as the two approaching Securitat ships were ordered not to land, and the guns of the Marque locked on them, Soler—clever, hurt, bitter, and a genius, in her way—activated the virus that had been lurking in the Marque’s defenses for almost a year. Guns were rendered impotent, landing pads left undefended, and doors remained unlocked. By the time Toria tracked her down and killed her, the first cruiser had touched down, and the Marque’s hallways were already echoing with the sounds of screaming and dying.

  • • •

  The second Securitat cruiser was some minutes behind the first, having been delayed by congestion in the routes off Illyr as Diplomatic and Civilian craft reacted in panic to the Military assault. The cruiser was now unable to find a safe landing pad; as soon as the breach in the Marque’s defenses had become apparent to the Sisterhood, the Nairenes had rushed to manually secure as much of their stronghold as they could, barricading doors and parking lifters and loaders on the landing pads, making it impossible for a ship to use them without incurring damage. With no other option, Keyra, the pilot of the cruiser, had ordered her gunner to aim for a light loader that was currently lying on its side on a pad adjoining one of the Marque’s huge greenhouses. This meant bringing the cruiser down until it was almost level with the loader; Keyra didn’t want to leave a crater on the pad that might endanger her cruiser. The gunner, Corae, hit the loader side-on with a heavy pulse blast, reducing it to scattered pieces of metal and clearing the way.

  Sisters emerged from a doorway beside the pad, and began firing handheld pulse weapons at the cruiser. Corae turned the cannon on them, reducing them to their constituent parts just as she had done with the loader.

  “Prepare for landing,” said Keyra. They were the last words that she ever spoke. The Revenge’s first torpedo struck before the cruiser had even touched the pad, and the second turned it into only a memory. While it burned, the Varcis came in beside it, and the Mechs emerged to join the fight.

  • • •

  The explosion from the cruiser’s destruction shook the Marque, sending dust down upon Vena and her surviving Securitats. The Sisters had been sturdier in their defense than Vena had anticipated—in fact, had she not known better, she might have said that it was almost as though they had been anticipating just such an assault, and only Soler’s sabotage had facilitated Vena’s entry into the Marque. In the aftermath of the blast she tried to raise Keyra on her communicator, but to no avail, and she understood that no reinforcements would be coming to join her. Pulse blasts came from in front and behind, and a Securitat fell to the ground beside her. Vena returned fire, killing the pair of security Sisters before her. She instructed the four remaining Securitats to dig in and hold back the Sisters, for Vena was almost at her destination. All was
not lost. If she could capture the Archmage, the Sisters would be forced to stand down while Vena negotiated their surrender.

  But, in truth, Vena knew that she would not allow Ani to live, just as she knew that she herself would never escape the Marque alive, not now. And what did it matter, after all? If the Military had managed to get through the Melos wormhole, then the war was over, and a reckoning was coming for Vena and those like her. There would be no mercy for her, just as she would show no mercy to Ani Cienda. The Archmage would not outlive her.

  Vena arrived at Ani’s chambers, marked on the map that Soler had smuggled out to her. If Ani was not here, then Vena would just make her final stand in this place, but she was certain that this was where Ani would have sought refuge. Soler had told her that the Archmage’s chambers functioned as a secondary control room if the main one was seized. From there, the Archmage could direct and coordinate the defense of the Marque.

  Vena hit the door release. A Sister turned to face her, and Vena recognized Liyal, one of Ani’s devoted bodyguards. Liyal fired a pulse, but it was off target, while Vena’s was not. Her shot took Liyal in the chest, killing her instantly.

  Vena moved quickly into the chambers. To her right knelt a Sister in red robes, apparently meditating before a wall of ancient books. Vena stepped toward her, and the Sister started to rise. Her veil fell away, and Vena saw the face of Ani Cienda watching her calmly. Screaming, years of barely controlled rage pouring out of her, Vena threw the Archmage to the floor, then holstered her pulser and pulled the knife from its scabbard. She grabbed Ani by the hair, not even stopping to wonder at the lack of fight in her. Vena raised Ani again to her knees, exposing her neck, then drew the blade across her throat. There was a gush of blood, and Ani’s body shook.

 

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