Dominion, p.4
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       Dominion, p.4

           John Connolly
 

  “And we’re in its belly,” she said. “Great.”

  It struck Paul that Rizzo might be entirely incapable of wonder. It had seemingly been removed from her at birth.

  “Look!” said Syl.

  She was pointing out of the window next to her. The others moved to the port side of the Nomad. A length of tubular organic matter, like a massive vein, was extruding from the bay, growing from the flesh of the ship and extending itself toward their vessel.

  “That’s just gross,” said Rizzo.

  The Nomad rocked slightly as the tube connected with the door on the port side. Seconds later, the door unlocked and hissed open. Paul walked to the doorway. Before him stretched a tunnel of bluish tissue. Like the bay, it was lit by what Paul could now see was bioluminescent matter. Carefully he reached out and tested the wall. It was rigid, slightly warm, and smelled faintly of meat, like a very hygienic butcher’s shop. It also curved about halfway down its length, so he could not see the end.

  “Syl?”

  She joined him. Behind her, Meia tilted her head and frowned a warning at Paul.

  “They already know about her,” said Paul. “That ship has sailed.”

  He turned back to Syl.

  “Are we in danger?” he asked.

  Syl extended her right hand and touched the tunnel. She could almost feel the color that instantly flooded into her mind, so vivid was it: greenish-yellow, shading at its edges to red. The voices were present again, a low hum in her consciousness.

  “Not yet,” she replied.

  “What does that mean?”

  “For now they’re still just interested, but if we act strangely, or give them any cause for concern, they’ll kill us.”

  That wasn’t reassuring, as Paul wasn’t precisely sure what counted as acting strangely when moving through an organic spacecraft populated by unseen aliens.

  “Any clue yet as to who ‘they’ are?”

  “No,” said Syl. “I can hear them, and sense their feelings, but only as much as they’ll allow.” She lowered her voice so that only he could hear. “Paul, I’m the one of whom they’re most distrustful. I’m the one putting us at risk.”

  “Because of your powers?”

  She shook her head.

  “No. Because I’m Illyri.”

  Paul took her left hand in his right.

  “We’re together,” he told her. “You let them know that.”

  Syl smiled at him.

  “I don’t need to tell them. Just as I can sense their feelings, so they can sense mine. I think you may be the only reason that I’m still alive.”

  “Wow, it’s almost like you need me.”

  Her grip tightened.

  “Isn’t it?” she said.

  Thula tapped Paul on the shoulder.

  “Perhaps you could concentrate on the problem at hand,” he said. “You can discuss your wedding plans later.”

  Paul reddened, but he did not release his hold on Syl.

  “Steven, Rizzo, Alis: you stay with the Nomad,” he ordered. “Meia, Thula: you’re with us.”

  “Weapons?” asked Thula.

  Paul looked to Syl for advice. She shook her head, and turned to Meia.

  “Meia, they know you’re armed.” Among Meia’s adaptations was a piece of internal weaponry buried in the workings of her right arm. “If you attempt to use it, they’ll destroy you.”

  “I understand.”

  After only the slightest hesitation, Paul and Syl stepped onto the docking bridge and began walking. It was slightly springy underfoot, as if inflated.

  Thula grinned at Meia.

  “After you,” he said. “You won’t take it the wrong way if I don’t stand too close, you being targeted first for destruction and all?”

  “Nothing would make me happier than to keep you at a distance,” Meia replied.

  She moved past Thula and left the Nomad.

  “You’re developing a sense of humor,” said Thula.

  “I had to,” Meia replied over her shoulder. “With you around, I needed one.”

  Thula glanced over at Steven. “And to think one just like her is all yours,” he said. Then he followed the others into the heart of the alien ship.

  CHAPTER 8

  They only discovered that the far end of the connector was blocked when they were over halfway across, because the curvature had hidden their ultimate destination from them.

  “That’s not good,” said Paul.

  The connector began to shake.

  “I’ve got worse news,” said Thula, looking back in the direction from which they’d come. “The other end has detached itself from the Nomad. This thing is closing on us.”

  Paul took a few steps back and saw that the Nomad was indeed no longer visible, for the tube had sealed itself and was now retracting, curling quickly toward them as if it were a heavy stocking being turned inside out.

  “We go on,” he said. “We don’t have much choice.”

  They kept moving forward, the shrinking of the connector apparently keeping pace with them, so that for every meter they traveled, they lost one behind them. Then, when they were almost within touching distance of the barrier ahead, it opened with a disturbing sucking sound, like a muscle relaxing. Thula eyed the resulting gap warily.

  “It looks like a mouth,” he said. “That, or someone’s ass.”

  “It’s fantastic,” said Meia.

  “I knew you’d say that.”

  “So do you agree that the ship really is alive?” Paul asked Meia.

  “I don’t know if you could call it alive, exactly,” she replied. “The vessel’s exterior is clearly some kind of alloy, which functions as a kind of exoskeleton, but so far the interior is organic. It appears to be biomechanical.”

  “Like you?”

  “Perhaps, but on a much vaster scale. The interesting question is one of consciousness.”

  Like you, Paul was tempted to add, again, but held his tongue. Instead he asked: “You mean, is it capable of independent thought and action, or is it under someone else’s control?”

  “Or even if it’s an actual creature, or simply organic matter adapted for purpose,” said Meia.

  “Syl spoke of multiple presences,” said Paul. “Whatever this thing is, it’s not out here alone.”

  He looked to Syl for confirmation.

  “It’s all quiet now,” she said. “I don’t sense anything.”

  Paul peered through the opening. It was darker beyond than in the connector, which had now shrunk so far that the closed end was almost at Thula’s back. With little alternative, Paul stepped through and found himself in a small, enclosed oval space, no bigger than the Nomad’s main cabin and with only the faintest of pink luminosity to it. Again, the surface beneath his feet was relatively firm, but with a little give. It was like standing on thick rubber matting. The others joined him. As soon as Thula was inside, the doorway sucked shut behind him.

  The light grew brighter. Veins and arteries appeared in the walls, the floor, the ceiling as, slowly, the entire oval became almost entirely transparent.

  “Oh my God,” said Syl.

  They were in another massive chamber, but this one dwarfed the dock to which the Nomad had been brought. Now the fleshiness of its walls was clear to them, and they could pick out muscles and tendons. Strangest of all, it was filled with some kind of fluid, faintly yellow in color, through which bubbles moved, propelled from one side of the chamber to the other by muscular spasms coming from suckered openings similar to the one through which they had just passed. Syl thought of a great womb, to which their tiny bubble was attached like an egg, surrounded entirely by amniotic fluid.

  And they all heard as well as felt a rhythmic vibration, like a great drumming, and they knew that it was the beating of the ship’s heart.

  The floor of their bubble shifted, causing clear vertical projections to rise behind each one of them, which then expanded to gently enclose them around the legs and upper body, holdi
ng them in place. With only the slightest of jerks, the bubble was released from its mooring, and shot through the fluid. Particles of tissue floated before them, or bumped against the outer skin, but not so hard as to cause even a ripple in its surface. They also glimpsed what looked like bacteria, but so great in size as to be visible to the naked eye: small systems of spirilla, clusters of cocci, and rodlike bacilli with flicking flagella.

  Then, less than a minute after their trip had commenced, it came to an end as the bubble reached the far side of the chamber, and a new sucker reached out to catch them and pull them to the wall. Their restraints fell away, and another doorway opened before them. They passed through it and found themselves in an observation gallery, its window many stories high and hundreds of meters wide. The window gave a clear view of space, and the distortion caused by the Derith wormhole, as though the stars were being manipulated and obscured by an imperfect lens. Over to the left they could see the imprisoned Corps craft, the net around it barely visible from this distance.

  The image before them began to recede, and it took them a moment or two to realize that the ship in which they stood was moving, reversing so that more and more of the galaxies beyond became visible. The stars shimmered, and whole systems appeared to detach themselves from the fabric of space. Darkness and light slowly turned to silver before them as other ships were revealed, their alloy exoskeletons seemingly growing before the eyes of Paul and the rest as each one deactivated its camouflage. One, two, three, ship after ship, until an entire fleet was displayed, each vessel different from the next: some angular and geometric, others flowing and wavelike; some perfectly symmetrical, others with disproportionate bulges or unevenly balanced, yet still strangely graceful and harmonious, as though their apparent instability was a reflection of purpose, less a flaw than a conscious design.

  And the Corps vessel hung at the heart of the fleet, like a small fish surrounded by the predators that would inevitably consume it.

  Paul stepped closer to the windows. A thin mesh of transparent scales covered it on the outside, which probably explained why the exterior of the alien ship had appeared entirely solid when they looked upon it from the Nomad.

  “Paul!”

  He turned at the sound of Syl’s voice, and saw fear naked on her face.

  “They’re coming!”

  CHAPTER 9

  The hull of the observation deck began to bulge close to where Thula was standing. He stepped back in alarm as the shape of a man appeared in the red flesh of the ship, like a figure emerging from a vat of blood. He was naked but unfinished, a showroom mannequin come to life, created not from plastic but meat, and entirely without skin. He was an anatomical model made flesh, a flayed man, every muscle laid bare to them.

  When he opened his heavily lidded eyes, they displayed the pupils and irises of an Illyri.

  He stood before them, space at his back, the vessels of the fleet visible behind him, and gazed intently at each of the visitors in turn. He spent the longest time staring at Syl and Paul, as though trying to come to some understanding of the connection between them.

  Then he spoke, slowly but clearly, in English, his voice soft and only a little hesitant. There were pauses between certain words, even between some syllables. And as he spoke, a translation appeared in the air before his face, rendered in the letters of the Illyri alphabet.

  “Welcome,” he said. “It is a”—pause—“pleasure to have you. Here.”

  “Who are you?” asked Paul.

  He had almost asked “What are you?” but that seemed impolite.

  “We are Cayth.”

  Meia was circling the being, examining him. He appeared untroubled by her attention.

  “Syl?” Meia said.

  “Yes.”

  “I can hear no heartbeat.”

  Meia’s faculties were far more acute than those of humans or Illyri.

  Syl reached out with her mind to the one who called himself Cayth, trying to get some sense of him, but found nothing. He was like a skinned, walking corpse.

  “It’s just something for us to focus on,” she said. “It has no life.”

  “It’s a composite,” said Meia. “I see aspects of Illyri musculature and bone structure, but human too. And then there are the eyes. They’ve created a fusion of both species, probably from the scans they made of our bodies.”

  “You told us they were coming, Syl,” said Paul. “Is this what you meant?”

  She shook her head.

  “No, they’re here. They’re all around us. I can feel their presence.”

  “They’re invisible?” asked Thula. He looked unhappy. Skinless bodies were bad enough; unseen beings peering over his shoulder were another matter entirely.

  “It’s more than that,” she said. “I don’t think they have any physical form at all.”

  “We are Cayth,” repeated the being before them, but his movements and gestures had changed. They were less mechanical and mannered than before. Syl saw an expression on his face that reminded her of Paul, a little flick of the left eyebrow that he used when he was amused, or skeptical.

  “It’s learning from us,” she said. “It’s imitating our gestures, our expressions.”

  “We want you to be. Comfortable,” said Cayth. “We want to communicate.”

  Then it tried switching to Illyri, but no equivalent translation into English appeared in the air.

  “What’s the deal?” asked Thula.

  “It’s simply repeating what it already said,” Meia informed him. “I think it learned English from listening to us talk on the Nomad, and some Illyri the same way. Perhaps it picked up the Illyri alphabet from the ship’s systems, but it has no idea how the English alphabet might look.”

  Seeing Thula’s puzzled expression, Cayth returned to English.

  “We wish to communicate,” he said, again. “We want you to be. Unconcerned.”

  “Skin might help,” said Thula. “And maybe a pair of pants.”

  Cayth’s body jerked, his back arching to such a degree that his face turned to the ceiling. He stretched out his arms and legs, and his feet left the floor, so that he became a crucified figure hanging before them.

  And then he was gone. He fell apart before their eyes, muscle, flesh, and bone reduced to a thick red soup that fell to the floor and was reabsorbed into the body of the ship.

  “Was it something I said?” said Thula, looking appalled.

  “Clearly that wasn’t working for anyone,” said Paul.

  “Is this preferable?”

  The voice came from behind them, deeper and more organic than the unfortunate Cayth’s. They turned.

  Before them stood a dense hologram, easily seven or eight feet in height. The creature it depicted was black and exoskeletal, like a shadow version of the ship itself. It resembled a hybrid of a predatory insect and an armored knight on horseback, with six long, armored limbs arrayed in pairs. Those on its upper body ended in sharp, striking talons that, as they watched, flared into a delicate star pattern, each phalange capable of independent movement, so that the alien could just as easily pick up an egg without cracking it as strike a lethal blow. Its head was a great, elongated bone mask, dotted with multiple black eyes at its thickest part before narrowing to a point barely wider than a man’s hand. They could see no sign of a mouth or jaws.

  “Again,” said the voice, “is this preferable?”

  “Man, bring back the other guy,” whispered Thula to Paul. “Even without pants.”

  The head of the hologram tilted in his direction.

  “No offense meant,” Thula added.

  Syl stepped forward.

  “You are Cayth, aren’t you?” she said. “All of you.”

  “There is not one. There is only all. I am Cayth. We are Cayth.”

  The hologram flickered and vanished, to be replaced by a series of rapidly changing images, in which each of them saw some of those whom they knew and loved: parents, brothers, sisters, friends, comrades.
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  “Where are they getting these from?” asked Paul.

  “Some of it is from the databases on board the Nomad, I imagine,” said Syl. “But most of it is from us.”

  “How?”

  “When they scanned us, they saw the things we care about, the things we hold dear: memories and images, families and friends—all that we treasure. They also probably saw what we had in the ship: those mementos we all keep.”

  Paul glimpsed his mother, smiling at him, uncannily like the old passport photo of her that he kept in his pocket. Thula watched one of his brothers grinning at him, just as he did from the picture of them together that was one of his most prized possessions.

  Syl saw her father, and she stumbled backward, the shock of him there, apparently in the living flesh, clear on her face.

  “But when they scanned you, you were blank, Syl,” said Thula softly. “I saw it.”

  She swallowed hard, and when she spoke her voice was high and sharp.

  “Well, obviously they saw more than you did,” she said.

  Paul caught Thula’s eye, giving him a warning look; he kept little from his longtime comrade, and Thula was aware that Syl possessed some very strange abilities. He’d even seen a little of them for himself. She was an odd one, he thought, watching her surreptitiously as her honeyed features smoothly recast themselves and her face became a mask once more. She was the sort of complicated girl his mother had warned him to avoid. Clearly Paul’s mother had not done the same. Perhaps she should have.

  And still the images continued to change, like a reel of tiny films.

  Meia saw Danis, to whom she had spoken just before she left Earth, and whom she trusted; and she saw the human, Trask, too, leader of the Resistance movement in Edinburgh, as much friend as enemy. Curious, she thought.

  And from all of these images, the Cayth created a single figure, containing a little of each of those whom the others found reassuring, trustworthy. It was vaguely masculine and middle-aged, and, like the original composite, it combined human and Illyri features—skin as dark as Thula’s, its face set with entirely lidless Illyri eyes—but it had a kind of gentleness to it, as though the Cayth had somehow managed to pinpoint the finest qualities of each of those remembered. It wore the uniform of a Brigade officer. The campaign badges on the left breast were familiar to Paul. It was a replica of the uniform worn by Peris, their old guardian, now left behind on Erebos.

 

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