Dominion, p.39
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       Dominion, p.39

           John Connolly

  Vena released her hold and stepped back, watching the body fall, waiting for Ani to die at last. The Securitat was breathless, panting, but she was smiling too. Finally, it was done.

  The Archmage’s body grew still. The blood stopped flowing, to be replaced by a stream of milky fluid that slowly became a trickle. The Archmage slowly stood, and now Vena saw for the first time the scarring behind her ear and around her hairline, and noticed that this figure was slightly shorter than Ani Cienda.

  Vena backed away from the Mech, shaking her head in disbelief, and as she did so a terrible pain shot through her body, beginning in her back and working its way through the core of her being until it seemed that it must surely erupt from her chest. There was a coldness to it, and then the chill was gone, and there was only the warmth of her own blood flowing from the wound. She turned slowly. Meia stood behind her, and in her hand was a blade not dissimilar to Vena’s own: a little thinner, perhaps, but just as sharp. Somewhere in the distance all firing ceased, and there was only silence.

  “Any last words?” asked Meia.

  “Bitch,” said Vena as Meia’s knife finished its work.


  Syl and Ani stood before the glass and stared at the One. It seemed to register their presence, for it moved on its web, the better to face them, and Syrene and Priety both jolted in their seats, as though reacting to a sudden electric shock.

  The tiny communicator in Ani’s ear vibrated.

  “Speak,” she said.

  Meia’s voice was in her head.

  “The Marque is secure. Three Securitats were taken alive. The rest are dead.”

  “And Vena?”

  “Deceased. She cut Alegna’s throat. Alegna is most unhappy about it.”

  It had been Meia’s idea to substitute the Mech named Alegna for Ani. The ProGen skin job to alter her appearance had been rushed, and crude, but it had worked.

  “Good,” said Ani. “Please give my thanks to Alegna, and apologize on my behalf for any discomfort she may have suffered.”

  “I will. Ani?”


  “I can join you, if you’ll let me.”

  It was with Meia alone that they had shared their plan to allow Syl access to the One, in those few short days before the anticipated assault on the Marque. It had been a crazy, intense time, filled with fear, planning, and small, seized moments of joy at their reunion. Meia had not objected to the scheme. The pair who stood before her were so clearly no longer children asking her permission, but adults, united and decided, yet she was well aware of the risks involved. She wanted to be with them to help if she could, but Syl and Ani both knew that this was beyond even Meia’s capabilities. They just hoped what was to come was not beyond Syl’s.

  “You’ll be of more use elsewhere,” said Ani. She adjusted the communicator so that Syl could hear Meia’s voice. “You can talk to both of us before you leave. Syl can hear you now.”


  “Yes, Meia.”

  “Don’t die.”

  “I’ll do my damnedest, Meia, I promise. Thanks.”

  Ani cut the signal as the One regarded them with its dark, alien eyes.

  • • •

  Meia returned to the Varcis and joined the remaining Mechs. Only a dozen had survived; twelve, out of tens of thousands. The thought brought rage to Meia.

  Alegna came on board last, a scar across her neck where the ProGen skin had been sealed. She took a seat behind Menos, the pilot, and he turned briefly to pat her affectionately on the hand. The Revenge hovered off their port bow.

  “Steven?” said Meia.

  “We hear you,” came Steven Kerr’s voice from the Revenge.

  “The Archmage has instructed us to leave the Marque.”

  “Is she okay?”

  “She has her own work to do, as has Syl, and as do we.”

  “The fleet has passed Cryos Station,” said Steven. “We have Diplomatic ships massing at Illyr. It doesn’t look like they’re about to go down without a fight.”

  “Then,” said Meia, “I suggest we give it to them.”

  • • •

  The door to the inner chamber hissed open, and Ani and Syl stepped through. Both wore protective suits, and hard plastic masks over their faces, but they were unarmed.

  The One had changed since the last time Syl had been in its presence. It was still largely transparent, and its system of hearts could be seen beating in unison, along with the pinkish-yellow cloud of brain behind its eyes, but the gripping tentacles on its body that allowed it to move on its web had withered away to be replaced by harder, chitinous limbs, and the same substance seemed to be creeping across its belly and lower back. As Syl watched, a section of the One’s skin hardened and changed color. It was growing armor, she realized; it was aware of the recent change in the Diplomats’ fortunes from the Others implanted in the Corps hierarchy. The One was preparing to defend itself.

  She noticed that, underneath it, Priety was on the verge of death. Her old teacher had been drained almost entirely of life; the One had clearly been drawing on her life force to power its transformation. Beside Priety, Syrene looked much older than Syl remembered. Her skin was wrinkled, the filigree tattoos on her face sagging like snagged threads, and her hands and arms were mottled with liver spots.

  Priety’s mouth opened wide, and a death rattle sounded in her throat. Her body sagged as the last of the life left it, and immediately the One began withdrawing the tendrils that connected it to the corpse, pulling away from it as a thing unclean. The fleshy coils and tubes curled toward Syl and Ani, and Ani took a step back in alarm, but Syl remained where she was, and kept the One at bay with the force of her will.

  She had not discussed with Ani the details of what she was going to do, in part because she was not even sure herself. She would not know until she was facing the enemy, but now that she was in its presence she still remained uncertain. She only understood that she had to offer herself to it, or at least allow herself to be taken, and without resistance, because only then could she enter it, become one with it, and—she hoped, she prayed—manipulate it. It wanted her, which gave her the advantage. Syl had entered a seller’s market.

  Almost to her own surprise, she found that she was not frightened. Even as she drew closer to the One, and stared up at it in its web, she felt only a nervous anticipation of the unknown. And awe; she felt awe.

  She recalled Derith, and the Cayth. She remembered what Fara had said from lips that matched her own mother’s: she was a being unlike any other, and she recognized the truth of it, for she contained universes within her. She had crossed boundaries in time and space that no Illyri before her ever had. Outwardly she remained unaltered, but inside she had felt the change, the shift in the cosmos, as her psychic powers—a gift of her conception, carefully nurtured—morphed and grew beyond all proportion. Ani had powers, but Syl was power.

  It was now or never and, should everything go awry, the death of a young Illyri would go all but unnoticed, and the universe would roll on regardless.

  Syl Hellais might, ultimately, prove to be nothing, but she sensed that she could be everything.

  She reached up and pushed her mask away. She heard Ani scream a warning, and then the One was upon her.

  • • •

  The Military fleet was in sight of Illyr when the first of the Diplomatic ships came into view. The Diplomats had regrouped quickly; even with the loss of half of their ships at Derith and Myelen, what presented itself to Nolis and the other Military commanders was still an armada of impressive power, and one equipped with vessels considerably more advanced than most of the Military fleet. It was also obvious that Dyer had not been entirely foolish, holding in reserve much of his firepower in case the Military breached the Illyr system.

  The first of the Diplomatic ships surged forward. The final battle for the soul of the Illyri was about to begin.

  • • •

  Red. Syl saw red.

  She understood that the One had consumed her head, surrounding her with tendrils. She could feel them probing at her nose, her mouth, her ears. She did not resist. She let them come. There was pain, tiny explosions of it, but it hurt less than she had expected.

  As she allowed the One to enter her, so too did it reveal itself to her. Once again, she found herself in contact with a consciousness that was old, and vile, and eternally hungry, all teeth and mouths, containing within itself billions upon billions of lives lived and lives lost. She roved with it through time and space, watching stars collapse and great galaxies being sucked into black holes. She saw worlds fall to it, entire species succumb until they were reduced to dust, and the memory of each creature that had become its prey was shared with her, for it retained what it absorbed, creating a repository of all the universe’s dead.

  Deeper she delved, ever deeper, as, back on the Marque, the One dug at her skull, and the tips of the first tendrils licked at her brain stem. Instantly Syrene’s consciousness was nearby, a trapped creature reduced to madness, screaming over and over, but Syl ignored it. Time ceased to have meaning for her, because time had no meaning for the Others, and she was becoming one with them. Planets formed, and fissures gaped in the fabric of the universe. All was color, then no color at all. She followed the life paths of billions of Others simultaneously as they were born, bred, and died, moving back, sire upon sire, and always there was hunger, so much hunger. They were ceaselessly, endlessly ravenous, consumed by a craving that knew no end, and no limit.

  Syl’s mouth was filled with flesh. Her nostrils were blocked. She was unable to breathe, so the One breathed for her. Somewhere, a distant, younger version of herself was lifted from the floor of the chamber in the Marque and spun in the air like a marionette dancing for its master. She experienced a tightening at the base of her neck, and a sensation like a bone needle penetrating her spine.

  Now she was the One, and the One was her, and she felt it searching through her consciousness, seeking the source of her gifts, a vampire gnawing for the vein. Ani still screamed her warnings, a voice like an echo through just one of Syl’s senses, though Syl hardly heard it for now she had thousands more. But Ani was wrong. Ani was—

  • • •

  The pain stopped. Syl opened her eyes. She was no longer in the Marque, but in the hollow heart of a distant world, and before her squatted an entity awesome in its immensity, barely younger than the oldest star, a creature that contained within it the first dust of the universe. It resembled the chitinous beast that the One might yet become, given aeons, its hide hard, pitted and marked by ancient injuries, its legs like broken trees in some great forest beyond imagining, fissured, cleaved columns no longer capable of supporting the mass above them. Its mouth was a yawning maw, caves within caves. Its dark eyes were filled with the memory of stars, and from its back emerged hollow spears of bone that had forced their way through the rocks above ages before, stretching into space. This was the Beast, the source of the One, and of all the Others, the first and oldest of its kind, and as its body jerked it pushed clouds of spores through the spines and into the void, dispersed in the hope of claiming new worlds in its name. Syl was but a mote of dust before it, a germ, encased in the One.

  She was an infection.

  The Beast recognized the One, accepting it because the One was its own, and Syl’s poison began to spread within it.

  • • •

  Above Illyr, Steven and Meia were fighting for their lives, the Revenge shadowing the Varcis, each staying close to the other: firing, warning, protecting. To starboard, they saw explosions burst from the carrier Demion as a Diplomatic destroyer poured fire into her. Voices cried losses in their ears: the Xomon, the Folia, the Vare . . .

  They were losing. They had come all this way, and made it back to Illyr to join the fight, and they were losing.

  • • •

  The Beast was not as it once had been.

  It was in every one of the Others; it saw through them, lived through them, experienced the universe through them. When one of its offspring ceased to exist, the Beast felt its pain. Now the Others on Earth had begun to wither and die, and the Beast did not understand why. A weakness of some kind, perhaps: an infection. To protect itself, the Beast had closed itself off against them, isolating the source of potential contamination.

  But it had done so too late. There were now dark patches in its memory, and cracks in its ancient defenses. It was through one of these cracks that Syl Hellais entered it.

  Syl sensed the Beast’s realization of its error. It had absorbed her through the One, and in doing so had unleashed her upon itself. As Syl moved through its consciousness—pricking, bursting, destroying it from the inside, cell by cell—the Beast tried to force her away, breaking the connection through the One, but Syl would not permit it to be severed. So the Beast tried to kill her, constricting her with the One’s tendrils, depriving her of oxygen, but still she fought it. The Beast began to panic, and in panicking revealed more of itself to her, like an impaled man struggling to free himself from the spike who, in his torment, impales himself still further. Syl was at its very core, and so at the core of all Others, infecting them as they had infected untold species. The Beast’s thoughts were hers, and so was its rage. In its fury, it showed her what it was about to do. She saw Illyr, and the ships fighting above it. She was in the Others curled around the brain stems of the Diplomat crews, and the gunners who poured fire upon the Military fleet, but she was also in the parasites that walked with their hosts on Illyr, and on Earth, and the hundred other worlds colonized by the Illyri. She watched as Illyri mouths opened, as their bodies swelled, and then spores poured forth, infecting her entire race as the Illyri were sacrificed to the Beast. She heard herself scream, and for the first time she felt real fear.

  And the Beast exploited her fear, and turned it upon her.

  • • •

  Ani stared in horror as Syl exposed herself to the One, and was powerless to prevent her from being yanked from the floor of the Marque so that she now hung suspended above it, dangling from the end of a mass of tendrils that covered her head to the shoulders. Ani didn’t know how to react. Was this what Syl had intended? Did she know what she was doing?

  Suddenly Syl’s body began to jerk and thrash, and her arms flailed uselessly at the air. This was wrong. Syl was in trouble, and if Syl was in trouble, then they all were, but Syl was also her friend. Syl had always been her friend.

  Ani took a deep breath, and removed her own mask. She stepped forward, and touched her hand to the nearest tendril. It curled almost delicately around her arm, and was quickly joined by others that wrapped themselves around her young, fresh body, her head, her face. She closed her eyes as her lips were forced apart, and then all was redness.

  • • •

  Syl was dying. She was drowning in blood, suffocating in spores. She tried to concentrate, but the Beast was tormenting her through the One, using it to inflict pain upon her, distracting her while it tried to sever the link with her. The Beast now knew that it had been mistaken. It could not take Syl Hellais’s powers and absorb them into its own. She was too strong for it—for them—yet not so strong that she could not be killed. The Beast would destroy her, and then wipe out her species. There would be others, and the Beast was old enough to have learned patience. It felt the psychic connection with the girl slowly disintegrating, tendril by tendril. Soon it would be gone entirely, and then—

  There was a new consciousness. It intruded upon the Beast, drawing its attention away from Syl before it could finally purge itself of her. It was another girl, linked to Syl, but not like her, not as powerful or as strong, but with such force of will: Ani, the Archmage, the one who had sacrificed the younger for the five ancients. As she appeared, so too did the previous Archmage, the being named Syrene, and the Beast felt her presence twisting inside its thoughts like a thorn. It sensed hatred from her—for Ani, for Syl, for all things, but most of all for the Be
ast—and in her dying Syrene also unleashed herself upon it, ripping at it in her death throes just as Ani clouded its vision with mist, but not so much that it could not find her, could not lash out, could not—

  Kill her.

  • • •

  Syl felt the moment of Ani’s death. She experienced it as a rush of fire through her being that scorched her raw, and a darkness that consumed her as her friend’s light was extinguished. She heard Ani cry out, an exclamation of surprise as much as pain, as something deep inside her body, some vital part of her, was punctured by the One. Syl sensed Ani’s consciousness searching for her, reaching like a hand stretched out by one who is drowning.

  • • •

  On his moon of exile, Lord Danis woke to the sound of his daughter calling for her father, and he shouted her name in turn, over and over, as a great wave of love and regret washed over him, leaving him broken by its passing.

  And then she was gone.

  • • •

  The Revenge was crippled. It had taken a shot to port that had disabled its engines, and its weapons system was fried. The Varcis had stayed with it, a bird trying to keep the predators from its stricken mate, and had fended off two attacks, but now the hunters were converging. Steven counted two Corps cruisers approaching, and most of a squadron of fighters from one of the carriers. Beside him, Alis had accessed the Revenge’s workings, and was trying to bring the weapons back on line at the very least, so that it might be able to defend itself, but Steven saw now that it was too late.

  “Meia,” he said.

  This time she appeared before him as a hologram, just as his face was before hers on the Varcis.

  “I see them,” she said.

  “You have to leave us.”

  “I won’t.”

  “Meia, I’m ordering you to go. You won’t survive against them.”

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