Dominion, p.6
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       Dominion, p.6

           John Connolly
 

  Rizzo considered what she had been told.

  “That,” she said, after a few moments, “is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

  “Albert Einstein agreed,” said Syl, dredging up a memory from her lessons on Earth. “He called it ‘spooky actions at a distance,’ so he wasn’t a big fan of quantum theory either.”

  “Anyway,” said Fara, who had watched and listened with a combination of bemusement and irritation to these exchanges, “we believe that only some form of entanglement can account for the exchange of information between the Others.”

  “What else can you tell us about them?” asked Paul.

  Both Kal and Fara looked almost embarrassed.

  “Very little,” said Fara. “They are hostile, without mercy, and concerned only with the propagation of their own species. They resist examination. If necessary, an individual spore will destroy itself rather than submit to testing of any kind, but that’s purely a last resort. They prefer to attack. Infection is their best defense: a single spore lodges in a host organism, then uses the energy of the host to breed fragmentarily through asexual reproduction, with each new fragment capable of growing into a mature individual. Basically, one spore can turn its host into a kind of spore bomb.”

  “We’ve watched it happen,” said Syl.

  “My crew saw an entire planet being used as a breeding facility,” added Paul.

  “And what did you do?” asked Fara.

  Paul hesitated.

  “We destroyed it,” he said.

  “An entire world?”

  “Yes. We irradiated it. On my orders.” Paul spoke defiantly, but he was annoyed to feel a blush of shame coming to his cheeks.

  Fara smiled at him, but it was not triumphant, or gloating, merely sad.

  “It’s okay,” she said. “Nothing on it could have been saved from them.”

  “You seem very certain of that,” said Meia.

  Meia had not been present when Paul was forced to act so ruthlessly to halt the breeding program. She had heard something of it from Alis, but had kept her opinions to herself. Privately, though, she was appalled at the probable eradication of all life on the planet, and alarmed at the capacities of the young human lieutenant. But she also recognized a kind of muted admiration for him. No one so young should have been forced to make that decision—nobody of any age, if it came to that—yet he had acted as he thought best, and was now living with the consequences. Still, Meia did not want him to get a taste for such actions.

  “I am,” said Fara, “because we were forced to do the same.”

  “We tried to halt their spread,” said Kal. “We failed.”

  “And then you fled here,” said Meia.

  “We were vulnerable to them in ways that conventional species were not,” said Fara.

  “Because you’re a collective consciousness,” said Syl.

  “If one was infected, all would fall,” said Kal. “Like the Others, we knew of the existence of wormholes, although their knowledge far exceeded our own. This wormhole—the one the Illyri call Derith—is unusual. It is the most remote of those mapped, and the systems beyond it are bordered, at their farthest reaches, by a ring of neutron stars and decaying magnetars.”

  “Again?” said Rizzo.

  “Natural defenses,” said Meia. “Neutron stars have magnetic fields more than a trillion times stronger than Earth’s, and incredibly powerful gravitational forces. A magnetar is a rapidly spinning neutron star, again with a colossal magnetic field. They’re not perfect fortifications, and magnetars don’t live long—maybe ten thousand years—but they’re a start.”

  “Beyond them we have capture fields, like the one that trapped you and the pursuing vessel,” said Cayth. “Nothing gets through. Here, we are safe.”

  “Or prisoners,” said Syl.

  “It is necessary,” said Fara. “From here, we can watch. We created the ancient transmitters that are our sentinels aeons ago, when we still had form, when your kind were just a whisper. Through them, as your conquests grew, we learned more of the Illyri.”

  “And what about humanity?” asked Paul.

  “Not until we glimpsed you on Torma. You are the reason that your crew are here, and not out there.”

  He gestured to the Corps ship.

  “What are you going to do with it?” asked Syl.

  “It’s contaminated.”

  “What does that mean?”

  New images appeared before them: the crew of the Illyri pursuit vessel moving about their cabin, or resting in their bunks, but presented like the pictures from an MRI scan, with their internal organs visible: lungs, spinal cord, heart.

  Brain.

  “My god,” said Paul.

  The creatures were clearly visible, wrapped around the brain stems of some of the crew, minute tendrils snaking into their hosts’ brains. Paul counted twelve figures on the ship, and more than half of them were carrying one of the Others.

  “You asked them their mission,” said Fara. “They told you that it was your destruction. Now we must ask you yours.”

  “The Illyri are planning to give Earth to the Others,” said Paul. “We have to stop them. Already, ships bearing spores are no doubt on their way to my home planet.”

  “You can’t stop them,” said Fara.

  “I have to.”

  “You don’t understand,” said Fara, and her voice was softened by sympathy. “It has already happened.”

  “That’s not possible,” said Syl. “We would have heard about it. Syrene wouldn’t have been able to resist taunting me with it.”

  “And an evacuation of all Illyri personnel would have been required,” said Meia. “That was still only in its early stages when I left Earth with Syrene, and it will be a mammoth operation. It’ll take months, perhaps even a year. And I was monitoring all communications. Even if the infection of Earth had been imminent, I would have known. But the fact remains: none of that could have been achieved so quickly.”

  “Time,” said Fara. “It is not the same here.”

  “Stop speaking in riddles!” snapped Paul. “Tell us what you mean! We have family on Earth, and friends. It’s our world, our species.”

  “And they are gone,” said Kal. “All gone.”

  “A higher gravitational field,” said Meia. “No, oh no . . .”

  “What?” said Paul. He looked at his brother. Steven had gone very pale. His chin was trembling, and Paul thought that he might cry.

  “Time passes more slowly in higher gravitational fields,” said Meia, “and the gravitational field surrounding the Derith wormhole is immense. But there is also the wormhole itself.”

  She looked to Fara for confirmation. Fara nodded.

  “One mouth of this wormhole accelerates to near light speed, then reverses, but the other remains stationary,” Meia continued. “The moving mouth ages faster. We’re at the stationary one.”

  “So time passes more slowly here,” said Syl.

  “How much more slowly?” asked Paul.

  “We don’t understand these things in the same way—” Kal began.

  “How. Slowly?” repeated Paul, and his tone brooked no argument.

  “A day on this side for a year on the other,” said Fara. “Approximately.”

  “We’ve been here almost two days now,” said Steven. “So two years have gone by back on Earth?”

  “Yes. Or thereabouts.”

  Steven leaped from his chair, his hands twitching frantically as if he was already at the controls of the Nomad. “We have to leave,” he shouted. “We have to get back.”

  Rizzo stood too, her hand automatically reaching for the holster where she normally kept a gun. Alis rose and joined them.

  “We have to return!” said Rizzo, slapping in frustration at the empty holder on her hip.

  “Return . . . and do what?” asked Kal.

  “Help them!” said Steven. “What do you think?”

  “You knew this?” said Paul to Kal and Fara.
“You knew about the passing of time, yet you kept us here?”

  “We saved you,” said Fara. “Without our intervention, your pursuers would have killed you. And we did not know about the Others’ plans for Earth until you told us.”

  “Two days!” said Paul. He was shouting too now. “You marooned us for one day, and brought us here for the next, and for what?”

  “To give us time,” said Fara. She did not seem even remotely troubled by Paul’s rage.

  “Time for what?”

  “To decide whether or not to destroy you,” said Kal.

  It was Steven who cracked first. He lunged across the table at the Cayth, but he had barely stretched himself before cords of tissue snaked upward from the floor, holding him where he was. Rizzo tried to help him, but she too was gripped and held in place.

  “Stop!” shouted Syl. “Everyone, please stop!”

  She reached out and took Paul’s hand, willing him to be calm so that he might in turn calm the others, then turned to Fara.

  “We’re alive,” she said. “You let us live.”

  “Yes.”

  “Now, will you let us leave?”

  A pause.

  “Yes.”

  “And will you help us, against the Others?”

  Another pause.

  “No.”

  “Cowards!” cried Steven. He was struggling against his bonds, and weeping as he did so. “You’re just cowards!”

  As before, Fara and Kal remained unfazed.

  “If you leave here now, and go back to Earth, you will die,” said Fara.

  “We can’t abandon it,” said Paul. He was keeping himself under control, but whether solely through his own efforts, or helped by Syl, he wasn’t sure.

  “They have taken your world, just as they have taken many worlds before, just as they will again. The Illyri will keep feeding the Others new planets as the price to be paid for the continuation of the Conquest: life-forms, species, whole civilizations, in return for knowledge. And if by any chance the Illyri were to refuse, and decide that enough was enough—and what conquering race has ever made that decision?—then the Others would destroy them too, and seek new hosts elsewhere.”

  “But you won’t help us to stop them—to stop it all?”

  “We can’t,” said Fara. “We would doom our entire race.”

  “Then if you won’t, who can?”

  And Fara raised a finger, and pointed it at Syl.

  “She can. She tries to hide herself, but there are always shadows, and her shadows are great, and terrifying. There is more within her . . .”

  But Paul barely heard Fara’s words. He could think only of Earth, of his mother, and of everyone else he had known and cared about so much. His friends. His uncles, aunts, cousins. The Resistance: Trask and his crazy daughters, the Illyri deserter Fremd, Maeve, Heather and her little girl, Alice. Maybe even Peris.

  Gone. All gone.

  PART III

  THE DYING OF THE EARTH

  CHAPTER 12

  After the attack on the Military base of Melos and the slaughter on Erebos, Captain Peris became a trophy of war. Many in the Diplomatic Corps might have preferred that he were dead, but others had successfully argued that he would be more useful alive.

  The situation was further complicated by the fact that Archmage Syrene, the leader of the Nairene Sisterhood, and also a crucial supporter of the Diplomats and their Securitats, had just married Lord Andrus, the great Military leader, and Peris was one of Andrus’s oldest comrades. The hurried wedding ceremony took place on Erebos, even while Syrene bled from the shoulder where she’d been hit by pulser fire during the escape of Syl and the others. But the wound was minor, and the marriage crucial: it forged new ties between the Military and the Nairenes, even while the ruins of Melos Station drifted nearby, pretty as falling stars.

  Lamentable as the union might have been, this tangled alliance of Nairene and Military was the reason why Syrene had been among those who argued against killing Peris. Under her influence, her husband, Lord Andrus, was trying to bring wavering factions within the Military over to the side of the Diplomatic Corps, arguing that a long civil conflict would only tear the Illyri Empire apart, and it was in their best interests to ally themselves with the new order and force the remaining renegade Military elements to the negotiating table. He had encouraged Peris to lend his voice to this effort, but Peris had resisted. Nevertheless, the fact that Peris was still alive allowed Andrus to declare that the Corps and its allies had no desire for further bloodshed.

  And then there was Ani . . .

  Peris could not understand it, but Syrene seemed to have taken to Ani, keeping the youngster near her at all times, whispering to her, ever closer, pulling her closer into her web. Ani ceased to visit Peris as his recovery continued, and when finally she did return, she had Syrene’s handmaiden, Cocile, in tow, and a tendril of budding leaves had been tattooed onto the young Illyri’s cheek, as if this was a time for artifice.

  “I am glad to see you looking so well,” said Ani.

  “I wish I could say the same,” Peris replied.

  “I’m not sure that I understand you.”

  “That scrawl on your cheek,” said Peris. “I understand enough about the Nairenes to recognize it as a mark of esteem. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were moving up their damned ladder!”

  Which was when Ani informed him that she was now Syrene’s scribe. She ignored the way Peris’s jaw dropped, tapping absently at her writing device as if she was too important to make time even for eye contact. This was a complete turnaround, in direct contrast to the initial fraught and acrimonious meetings between the Archmage and the Earth-born teenager back in Edinburgh, and Peris struggled to make sense of it. Cocile made her lips tight, as if suppressing amusement at his befuddlement.

  “But what about your parents? What about all that the Sisterhood has done, and their allies in the Corps?” he said. He recalled what he’d witnessed on Archaeon, the mental snapshots of living creatures torn apart by aliens, and the resulting spores that were bound for Earth. He’d told Ani about all of it: Had she really cast it aside, as if it were nothing? He thought of the Gifted, and the torments they had inflicted, not least of all on himself. Finally, he recalled those he had known on Melos Station, and all the nameless dead who had joined them in the void as the base was destroyed. How could Ani ally herself with those who had done such things? He stared hard at the young Illyri, willing her to look at him, wishing he could reach into her stubborn skull with the force of his mind, but it was a power that he did not possess.

  “What about my parents?” said Ani evenly, and as she spoke the leaves on her cheek appeared to flutter and fall into shadow. “I have spoken to the Archmage. Everything is in hand. As for the rest, we are at war, but we must strive for peace.”

  “But . . . Ani, may I speak with you in private?”

  Now Cocile let out her long-suppressed laugh.

  “Don’t be ridiculous,” she scoffed. “The Archmage’s personal scribe cannot be left alone with a prisoner.”

  “Peris,” said Ani, her voice soothing as if she was addressing a toddler having a tantrum. “I appreciate that we have a long history—or rather had—but I am a Nairene now, of late ordained as a full Sister. In addition, the Archmage Syrene has seen fit to allow me to join her personal staff. I have been singled out for great honor. From now on, I must unshackle myself from my past. I’m afraid that I can’t see you again. I wish you well. Goodbye.”

  Peris reached for her, but she was already rising. She did not look back at him as the door closed behind her.

  “Ani!” he shouted. “Ani!”

  But she was gone, and he was alone.

  • • •

  Yet while Ani might have absented herself from Peris’s life, Syrene had not. She began to visit him regularly, assuring him that his “crimes” against the Sisterhood and the Illyri Empire had been forgiven. She understood from Ani that Peris had traveled
to Erebos with the best of intentions, seeking only to ensure the safety of senior Illyri who were under threat from renegade forces. The fact that he had remained behind on Erebos rather than flee with Syl Hellais and her followers was confirmation of his loyalty, Syrene said. She spoke of all the Military leaders who had already come over to the side of the Diplomats. She explained to Peris that, while he was lowly in rank, he was held in high esteem by his fellow soldiers. If he came onside, he could do much to prevent further conflict and loss of life.

  The days turned to weeks, and Peris continued to spurn Syrene’s silken offers. Among them was a promise to have his arm reconstructed, but the operation would be painful, and the recuperation period lengthy. The one thing he didn’t have was time. He had to warn Danis, who was now governor of Britain, of what was coming. He had to warn everyone. Somehow, he needed to find a way to get to Earth, but so far none of Syrene’s offers to him had included that possibility.

  “Please, Peris,” said Syrene, perching on the old soldier’s bed. “The reconstruction is a simple procedure now. I’d like to know that you’re whole. Do it for me.”

  “Your Eminence,” he replied, “that is precisely why I will not do it.”

  She laughed gaily at the insult. “Well then, do it for Ani. You know, she wants me to send you to Earth.”

  Peris was surprised. It was as though she had read his mind.

  “Ani asked you to send me?”

  “She thinks you might be able to convince her mother and father to return to Illyr, for she misses them. No doubt you might find the business of traveling easier with two functioning arms.”

  Peris tried to judge the Red Witch as she spoke, for she was being unnaturally talkative, which made him immediately wary, but she remained as unreadable as ever. She had a certain dramatic way of speaking, he noticed. Every line was a performance, every declaration a soliloquy. She was an actress playing a role, but the real being remained unknowable.

  “I tried to impress upon Sister Ani the great honor that I had bestowed on her father by making him governor,” Syrene continued, “but the child is fretting. She is a dear little creature, though, and has become almost like a daughter to me, and to my beloved husband, especially since”—here her face contorted and her voice rose as her emotions tipped over into blackness—“that traitorous spawn of Andrus’s turned on us at our own wedding. The destruction she caused, the death . . .”

 
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