Dominion, p.5
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       Dominion, p.5

           John Connolly
 

  “Is this preferable?” the composite asked, and there was humor in the voice.

  Nobody objected. It seemed that this was, indeed, preferable.

  CHAPTER 10

  The observation deck, previously empty of furniture, produced chairs from the floor, and an oval table, precisely like those on board the Nomad. A shape began to form in the wall, and what might almost have been a female version of the Cayth figure appeared, sliding effortlessly out of it with a soft plop. Paul heard Syl gasp beside him, but he was too distracted even to look at her. The new arrival bore traces of Paul’s mother—vague, and impossible to identify precisely, but present nonetheless. He felt a huge rush of need and emotion unlike any that he had experienced since he was a young boy. All of his feelings for his mother—love, guilt for being forced to abandon her on Earth, sorrow for all of the times he had hurt her, gratitude for all that she had done for him and his brother, and other sensations too complex to name—threatened to overwhelm him.

  He became aware of sobbing from his left. He looked at Syl, and saw that she had broken down. The sounds she was making seemed to come from the very depths of her being, and there was something so primitive and painful to them, and something so desolate yet awed about the expression on her face, that all he could do was try to pull her to him in order to console her. Yet she brushed him away, her eyes fixed on the alien, captivated by her, and Paul was reminded of the illustrations in the books of religious instruction at his old Catholic school, of Bernadette kneeling before the Virgin Mary, bathed in radiance.

  Somehow, Syl managed to force the words out.

  “My mother,” she said. “It’s become my mother.”

  Paul, who had never seen any pictures of the Lady Orianne, looked from Syl to the alien. He had thought that the alien perhaps bore some slight resemblance to Syl as well as his own mother, but he had put it down to the possibility that the presence of Syl had partly influenced its creation. Now he knew differently. He wondered just how much the alien resembled Orianne. He suspected, from Syl’s reaction, that it was not merely a passing similarity, or simply a hint or suggestion as with his own mother. No, whatever the Cayth were, they had somehow tapped into Syl’s wellspring of love and loss, and so powerful was it that it had influenced the appearance of this latest manifestation.

  The alien tilted its head, watching Syl in turn, fascinated by this emotional response to her presence. As it did so, its appearance altered, shifting like sand, and now the resemblance to Syl was unmistakable.

  Careful, Paul wanted to say. Careful, Syl.

  And a little of his concern got through to her. He saw her force herself to look away, although it clearly pained her to do so.

  A hatch in the table opened. Ornate glass bottles appeared, filled with water and bowls of Illyri and human food, squares of chocolate among them. There was also a steaming pot, and cups. Paul smelled fresh coffee.

  “Please,” said the female Cayth, gesturing at the table and chairs. “Sit.”

  They sat, the male Cayth at the head of the table, the female to his left. She had not taken her eyes from Syl.

  Meia picked up a piece of chocolate and examined it. She sniffed it carefully before returning it to its bowl.

  “It appears to be real,” she told Paul. “Either they raided our larder, or they scanned our stores and replicated everything in them, just as they scanned us in order to create these hybrid forms.”

  Thula took a square of chocolate and paused for a moment to say what might have been a small prayer before popping it into his mouth. He nodded as he ate, and poured himself some coffee, then picked up two more pieces of chocolate and sent them the way of the first.

  “They might have been poisoned,” said Paul.

  “Still might be,” said Thula. “But what a way to go.”

  Paul returned his attention to the Cayth.

  “You haven’t introduced us to your friend,” he said to the first figure.

  “We are Cayth,” the female replied.

  “We can’t call you all Cayth,” said Thula, through a mouthful of chocolate and coffee. “It’ll become confusing.”

  The female frowned. They watched as she struggled with something—memories, perhaps.

  “Fara,” she said at last.

  The masculine form looked puzzled at this latest development.

  “Fara?” he asked her. “Why?”

  “It was a name that we once knew.”

  The male regarded her curiously. “Yes,” he said. “It was.”

  He turned back to Paul.

  “Kal,” he said, indicating himself. “That too is a name we once knew.”

  “Kal,” Paul repeated. “I am Paul Kerr.”

  “You are the leader.” It was a statement, not a question.

  “Yes.”

  “We saw you.”

  “Where?”

  “On a planet of sand and stone.”

  A system map appeared in the air before them. Paul saw a wormhole, and a series of moons and planets. He recognized Torma, where all this had begun: the attack on their ship, the deaths of their comrades, and the fleeing and fighting that had led them at last to the Derith wormhole. The image changed, and Paul saw a Brigade shuttle hovering against the Tormal landscape. The image was magnified, over and over, until Paul could make out the silhouette of his brother at the controls, and glimpsed a ghost of himself standing beside a window, staring out. If the image was a photograph, he was staring directly at the camera.

  “That rock,” he said. “It was covered in symbols.”

  “Yes.”

  “I sensed something there.”

  “You sensed us.”

  “But it was just a rock.”

  “No, it was much more than that. It was a sentinel.”

  “You left it there?”

  “Long ago. We left many like it.”

  “Why?”

  “To watch. To warn.”

  “Of what?”

  Kal did not answer. Instead, he pointed to the observation window, and the Corps ship that hung trapped beyond it.

  “The Illyri?” said Paul.

  “The contamination.”

  “The Others,” said Syl. “That’s what he means.”

  “Others?” said Fara.

  Syl could still not quite bring herself to look at the female form, as though she did not have faith in her abilities to keep her feelings under control.

  “That’s what we call them,” Syl mumbled. “Those—”

  But Fara interrupted her.

  “Does this appearance disturb you?” she asked.

  “A little,” said Syl.

  “Why?”

  “You look like someone who”—Syl tried to find the right words, but couldn’t—“was—is—important to me.”

  “Your mother.”

  “Yes.”

  “We—no, that should be I—I thought you would be pleased,” said Fara. “I thought you would be reassured. I felt your love for her.”

  “She died when I was very young,” said Syl. “I have no memory of how she looked, except for pictures. When you appeared, you were so much like her, or so much like how I imagined she might have been.”

  Syl seemed to be talking more to herself than to Fara, or perhaps even to the ghost of a dead mother.

  “I can change,” said Fara. “I do not wish you to be distressed.”

  Syl raised her eyes from the table and held Fara’s gaze, although perhaps it wasn’t a gaze, for the form was an organic composite. It had no need of the five senses, for it was a sense all its own.

  “No,” said Syl. “I don’t want you to change.”

  Thula caught Paul’s eye. Not good, his expression said. Not good at all.

  • • •

  Back on the Nomad, Steven, Rizzo, and Alis were growing increasingly concerned. They had lost communication with Paul and the others from the moment that the docking bridge disengaged from their ship, and since then they had been watching wha
t appeared to be signs of activity in the bay around them. The lights embedded in the fleshy walls of the ship had begun to form particular recurring patterns. At first, Steven thought that it might have been a trick of his imagination, caused by staring out of the cockpit window for too long, but Alis had picked up on them too, and had begun analyzing them, trying to determine what they might mean.

  “I think it’s a form of communication,” she said. “They’re signals being sent from one part of the ship to the other.”

  “By the crew?” asked Steven.

  “I assume so, except . . .”

  “Except?”

  “There doesn’t seem to be a crew. On a vessel this size, we’d surely have seen some sign of them by now. It’s like a ghost ship.”

  “But Syl felt them.”

  “Syl felt something,” said Alis. “I don’t doubt that. I’m just not sure it was the crew.”

  “Maybe they’re dead,” said Rizzo matter-of-factly.

  “Then what was she hearing?” asked Steven. “Spirits?”

  “When we were in basic training, Peris told me about an Illyri warship called the Margus. Did you ever hear of it?”

  Steven shook his head, but Alis retrieved the details from her memory.

  “I know of it, Rizzo. It was long before the Illyri encountered humanity—or any other advanced species, for that matter—and they had to do their own dirty work on far-flung planets. An infection was brought on board the Margus following an exploration mission to a new moon: a virus of some kind that the ship’s medical systems failed to detect. It killed the entire crew; almost six hundred Illyri, all wiped out in a matter of hours, and the virus left no trace of its presence, beyond the bodies. When the remains were examined, they were found to be entirely clear of any lethal contaminant. It’s one of the great mysteries of Illyri exploration: a ship floating through space, steered by corpses.”

  “It was the early days of neural Chips,” said Rizzo. “They were always malfunctioning, according to Peris, and surgeons were forever having to perform tweaks on them. When the crew started to die, the Chips responded with some kind of spontaneous upload of data: fragments of speech, last messages to loved ones, all sent directly to the ship’s systems. So when the first rescue crews entered the Margus, all they heard were the voices of the dead.”

  “Ghosts in the machine,” said Steven.

  “Even after they powered down the computers and rebooted, the voices were still there,” continued Rizzo. “No one could ever figure out where in the system they’d embedded themselves. Eventually, the Margus had to be entirely refitted, but even then a lot of Illyri preferred not to serve on it, apparently. It was said that the voices could still be heard, whispering in the background of open channels.”

  “I thought the Illyri weren’t superstitious,” said Steven. “They don’t believe in an afterlife.”

  “Oh, they didn’t think that the ship was haunted,” said Alis. “It was just bad for morale. Eventually, the Margus was scrapped.”

  “Bad for morale?” repeated Rizzo. “Right.” She blew air through her nose disdainfully.

  “You think this might be another Margus?” said Steven to Alis.

  “No, this is something stranger, and more advanced. Whatever is controlling this ship, it’s not spirits.”

  Steven was staring at her curiously.

  “What?” she said.

  “I don’t want to offend you.”

  “You won’t.”

  “That phrase, ‘ghosts in the machine,’ I think I once heard it used about the Mechs’ belief in a god. Your conviction that you had a soul was—”

  “A system defect,” Alis finished for him. “A glitch. But what is a soul? Perhaps it’s nothing more than a manifestation of our consciousness that survives the final destruction of our bodies. It is what continues. It is what endures. It is the ghost in the machine of the universe.”

  The Nomad shook, and its cabin door opened. Once again, a bridge had connected it to the alien ship. As they turned to look, pinkish gel oozed into the cockpit and began to form a figure before them: first legs and a torso, then arms and a head. Rizzo leaped for the shotgun that was never far from her reach, but Steven shouted at her to stand down, his voice snapping out the command, and the highly trained fighter within Rizzo’s nonchalant, tough-girl exterior had the sense to listen. Finally, a layer of pale skin formed itself over the figure, and it stood naked before them. It was female, and human, or apparently so.

  “Follow me,” it said.

  “I don’t think so,” said Rizzo instinctively. She had never seen any reason to follow a naked stranger anywhere before, and wasn’t about to start now.

  Suddenly an image of Paul appeared between them and the woman, something like a hologram.

  “It’s okay,” Paul told them. “Just do as she asks. I think you need to see what we’re seeing . . .”

  CHAPTER 11

  The crew of the Nomad stood together at the center of a vast chamber filled with millions of sparkling lights that seemed both part of, and separate from, the alien vessel. As one light appeared, another was extinguished: a constant flickering that dazzled the eye. At first there was only silence, but gradually a low hum could be heard, and as it rose in volume they discerned the babble of an untold number of voices, all speaking in unison. This was the sound that Syl had heard.

  This was the Cayth.

  They were a race without physical form, a species that had long ago abandoned bodies. Bodies wasted away. They contracted diseases. Bones shattered, and organs failed.

  But the mind . . .

  How frustrating, how unjust, that a lively, active consciousness should cease to exist simply because the delicate frame that housed it went into decay. If the mind could be freed from the limitations of the body, then it might become virtually eternal.

  And so the Cayth evolved, but they did not entirely abandon flesh, blood, and bone. They created organic computers, and biomechanical ships, and these they inhabited with their consciousness. They were both individual and collective: billions of distinct minds working together, so interwoven and interdependent that their identities had become, for all intents and purposes, one. Yet, as Fara and Kal had demonstrated, some element of their former individuality still remained, a dream of what once had been.

  • • •

  They returned to the observation deck, their eyes and ears still filled with the sight and sound of the Cayth. The hum continued, though, like a soothing white noise. Now they all looked at Kal and Fara differently, knowing that within their temporary physical forms, assumed for the benefit of their guests, they contained multitudes.

  “It is interesting that you call them ‘Others,’ ” said Fara, “while we refer to them as a contaminant.”

  “How so?” asked Paul.

  “Because to them, we are the others. We are the contamination.”

  “I don’t understand.”

  “They are ancient,” said Kal. “They may well be the oldest living beings in the universe. To them, all other life is inferior.”

  “To them,” Fara corrected him, “all other life is prey. They may appear simple—in their most basic form just a spore, a tiny thing—but they are impossibly complex. Within each spore is the potential for any number of evolutionary paths, depending upon the requirement of the species: food, knowledge, reproduction, infection. Destruction.”

  “And they are in constant communication with one another,” added Kal. “They are not quite a collective, but individual manifestations of the life-form are capable of remaining in contact with others, even when light-years apart.”

  “How?” asked Meia.

  “Through what we believe is a form of quantum entanglement,” said Fara.

  “Quantum entanglement remains a theory,” said Meia. “It has not been proved.”

  “Nevertheless, we can find no other explanation for how the Contamination”—she paused and then corrected herself, deferring to the visito
rs—“no, for how the Others behave.”

  “Excuse me a moment,” said Thula, “but could someone explain what you’re talking about? What the hell is this quantum entanglement business?”

  “How long do you have?” asked Meia.

  “Explain it to me like I’m five,” said Thula, folding his arms across his chest in a challenge.

  “And me too,” chipped in Rizzo, “but preferably in Italian.”

  “It is a theory concerning very small particles—electrons, for example—that have interacted in the past, and then moved apart. Anything that affects one of those particles, such as an adjustment to its position or velocity, should instantaneously affect the other particle, no matter how distant they are.”

  Now they all stared at Meia in bafflement.

  “And that’s the bambino version? Is it even worth telling you that nobody understood a word of what you just said?” said Rizzo.

  “Don’t feel bad—it’s not you,” Thula told Meia. “Someone could be explaining to Rizzo how to open a door, and she wouldn’t get it. Unless she can blow it up or shoot at it, it’s all just Greek to her. Or Zulu. Ngicela ukhulume kancane, hey, Rizzo?”

  “Screw you, Thula,” said Rizzo. “And what the hell does that mean, anyway?”

  “It means, ‘Speak more slowly,’ ” said Thula, and he winked at her.

  Rizzo said something presumably obscene in Italian, though no one felt the need to ask for a translation, before returning her attention to Meia.

  “What he just said,” Rizzo told her.

  “That probably goes for all of us,” Paul added.

  Meia sighed, and even rolled her eyes. Sometimes Paul had to remind himself that she was an artificial being. She grew more human—or more Illyri—with every passing day.

  “Imagine you had a twin sister,” Meia explained, focusing on Rizzo, “and she was on Earth, and you were here. Well, quantum entanglement is the equivalent of someone tickling you here, and your twin sister back on Earth laughing.”

 

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