Dominion, p.7
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       Dominion, p.7

           John Connolly
 

  She shuddered to a halt and placed her head in her hands, then shrugged her shoulders heavily, as if the weight of Syl’s treachery was too much for her to bear. When she finally looked up, her features were rearranged once more into bland tranquility, and, as she continued, her voice was smooth as oil.

  “Do you know I was prepared to love Syl Hellais as my own, Peris? Yes, on the surface it would appear that it was I who took her away from her father, and it was I who removed Syl and Ani to the Marque. But consider the facts: Was I not offering them refuge from the storm they themselves had created? They were traitors to their own kind, to the entire Illyri nation. They took up arms with those who would destroy us, and yet still I gave them my hand of friendship, and transported them on my private craft to the sanctuary of the Sisterhood, saving them from certain death in the Punishment Battalions.”

  She waited for his reaction, and when there was none forthcoming she continued, growing ever more self-righteous.

  “And I fear you have forgotten that Syl Hellais was also responsible for the death of my esteemed first husband, Consul Gradus. Yet, traumatized as I was, I found it in my heart to provide her with a path back from the abyss, giving her another chance that even she—audacious and willful child that she is—could not have believed possible. I was gracious, despite my own terrible suffering, despite being so cruelly widowed in my prime.”

  Peris watched Syrene closely as she talked, finding himself mesmerized by the ink creatures that spilled down her face, writhing and creeping along with her words.

  “And then, once again, how did that vicious hellcat see fit to repay me? With evil, Peris. With pure evil. First, she visited destruction upon my Marque, killing one of our most revered teachers, the Grandmage Oriel—a dear friend of mine, and a gentlewoman whose only wish was to live out her days in peace, surrounded by the eager Novices who hungered for the wisdom that decades of study and quiet contemplation had bestowed on her. Do you know what Syl did to Oriel?”

  Syrene didn’t wait for an answer, so tied up was she in the lies she had told herself.

  “She unleashed a swarm of garniads on her, stinging her to death. It must have been agonizing. But that was not enough for Syl Hellais, for she then flew to Erebos, where she murdered numerous important guests at my wedding—including esteemed members of the Military, your Military, I might add—and then, when my most gifted Novices tried to stop her, she killed them too. In cold blood.”

  Peris thought he might laugh, but he feared if he started he would not stop so he chewed back the sound, and it came out as a grunt.

  “But of course, you were there!” Syrene said. “You witnessed her madness firsthand. You too were a victim. It would be helpful if you could make a formal statement to that effect. My gratitude would be considerable. There are so many rumors, so many lies, about what took place before my wedding . . .”

  So this was the game, thought Peris. Sign up to the fiction about Syl Hellais, the tale that it was she, not the Gifted, who was responsible for the killings on Erebos. And while he was about it, he could support Andrus’s claim that the attack on Melos had been necessary to prevent the Illyr system being turned into a series of battlefields. We killed thousands to save millions: that was the great argument, the great lie.

  Syrene regarded him quietly for a long while, and it was as if her thoughts were tapping at his mind. He was powerless to stop her intrusion, so he instead he said precisely what he was thinking.

  “You know full well that Syl did not injure me. She saved me. And you know too that she did not kill the officers who died that day. It’s no good reading my thoughts, Syrene, for I am not the one with secrets to hide.”

  She watched him for a few moments longer, unmoving, and the creatures adorning her face went still, poised as if waiting to pounce. Finally, she stood up to leave.

  “I am done wasting my time with you, Peris,” she said. “Your disdain grieves me. Expect no more favor from me. Since you are no longer in pain, please make yourself ready to go to Earth. I shall provide you with a small craft for this purpose. You are to report to Governor Danis, greet his wife, the Lady Fian, on my behalf, and then transmit a report on their health for the sake of Ani. Unfortunately, they will be unable to return to Illyr as their daughter might wish; we need Illyri of their quality and loyalty to remain on Earth. Incidentally, Ani was also concerned about the welfare of that dreadful governess, Althea, and hoped that she might be able to return with her parents, so please send word of Althea too. She may return if she wishes. She’s of no consequence to me. After that, you are to remain on Earth, for I have grown weary of you. You will end your days there.”

  For once, Peris managed to keep his mouth shut. The Red Witch had given him just what he wanted: the opportunity to return to Earth. Once he was there, he’d have to find a way to escape after he’d warned his friends of the threat from the Others, but he’d deal with that problem when the time came.

  “Do you have nothing to say?” asked Syrene.

  Peris sighed, and shook his head.

  “I’ll go,” he said. “I don’t have much choice.”

  “I’m glad to see that you’ve stopped fighting me, Peris. You just didn’t realize that you had already lost a long time ago.”

  “Yes,” he agreed as she turned to go, “we’ve all lost.”

  But they had not. Now, he thought, at least there is hope.

  CHAPTER 13

  Peris’s journey to Earth was dull, and without company. He was the only passenger on a series of ships that took him, by way of relays, to his old stomping ground. That was unusual: in the past, ships to Earth would have been filled with Diplomats, Military, even the occasional Civilian businessman. Now there was still traffic, but most of it seemed to be heading away from the planet, and Peris thought that he knew why.

  The evacuation had begun.

  The final shuttle that took Peris from the mothership to Earth dropped him off on the planet in a rush, as if the pilot was a nervous cabdriver in a particularly seedy part of town. She had been uneasy from the moment they uncoupled from the ship.

  “You all right, Officer?” asked Peris, not for the first time. She was making him nervous, but the planet drawing closer below them appeared as beautiful and blue as it had always been, quiet and untouchable from this distance, marbled with white clouds and golden deserts.

  “I told you, sir, I’m fine,” she snapped, yet again, and then they were enveloped in the heavyweight duvet of cloud that lay over Edinburgh. They broke through close to the ground, and the city looked as he remembered it, grand and wet.

  His feet had barely touched the tarmac when the pilot took off again, speaking in a rush as the door opened, saying that no, she had no reason for stopping on the planet, and, no, she did not wish to rest or eat a proper meal, or even freshen up before she flew away.

  “Hurry, sir,” she called to him anxiously as the exit slid shut, “and be careful.” The doors had barely sealed before she was off again, but she waved at him from the cockpit, her lips forming the words silently: Hurry! Hurry!

  Peris watched the small silver dot of her craft as it was absorbed by the ominous sky, then turned his face to the rain and the wind, feeling the water and the chill beating against his flesh, pummeling like tiny, angry hands. It had been a long time since he’d known rain on his skin. It felt good. He felt alive.

  A voice bellowed across the courtyard into which Peris had been deposited, a familiar voice, the voice of a friend: “Ahoy! Is that really you, Peris? I didn’t dare believe the manifest! I had to see for myself!”

  And now something happened to Peris that hadn’t happened in so long he’d almost forgotten that he had this ability, this odd power in him. His cheeks tingled and his mouth opened as if it wasn’t under his control any longer, and he found an enormous smile was spreading unbidden across his face.

  “Danis! You old trout!” he shouted back, delighted.

  As the gray raindrops fell heavier, the
two veterans moved to embrace each other in the storm, and they held on like drowning men to life rafts; they held on because sometimes that’s all there is to do.

  • • •

  Peris sat down to a late dinner with Danis and Fian, Ani’s mother, in their private quarters. Althea joined them, and so too did Balen, private secretary to the governor. They had to be careful: the Military and the Diplomats were at war, but the situation on Earth was even more complex than it was back on Illyr. The Military on the planet was previously subject to control by the Corps, just like everything else on the conquered world, and the Corps had learned of the outbreak of civil conflict before Danis and those like him. The Military presence on Earth had already been much reduced in favor of Corps troops and Securitats, but now the remaining Military forces were largely restricted to barracks, and Military administrators like Danis were virtually powerless, with all of their decisions requiring approval from the Corps. It was, Danis supposed, better than an eruption of bloody conflict between the two Illyri powers on Earth, but not by much.

  “What is happening, Peris? Tell me of my daughter. We get so little news,” said Fian as she topped up his wineglass generously with a robust Spanish Rioja.

  “And what of Syl, and the Kerr boys?” added Althea, which brought a slight frown of disapproval from Fian. “We get so little news about anything. The Corps is barely willing to tell us the time of day.”

  Peris took a large swig of his wine, almost emptying the glass, and Althea raised an eyebrow. Once a governess, always a governess, thought Peris, and he smiled at her affectionately. Peris noticed that she looked different, thinner, her skin drawn tightly across her cheeks, but oddest of all she was no longer wearing the typical Illyri robes that had constituted her entire wardrobe in times past. Instead, she wore what appeared to be—what was the word?—jeans? Yes, jeans, the uniform of half this world, paired with a plaid shirt, a man’s shirt, worn and comfortable. Strangely, it suited her, but when she smiled back, it was strained. She seemed tired.

  “Fian, Ani is safe—for now,” said Peris. “Are these rooms secure?”

  “Of course,” said Balen stiffly. “I swept them for bugs myself.”

  Thus assured, Peris told them of everything that had gone before: of Ani, and her apparent surrender to the blandishments of Syrene; of the destruction and killings on Erebos spearheaded by the Sisterhood; of the intervention of Syl, followed by her escape with the Kerr brothers, Meia, and others; and of their disappearance into the Derith wormhole, from which they, like all before them, had not emerged again. At this, Althea let out a wail of anguish, and then was silent for a time, her head bowed in mourning for her lost near-daughter.

  Finally he told them of the forbidden planet of Archaeon, and of what they had seen there: an alien infestation, the creatures bursting from the bellies of animals, and their spores being sucked up to be shipped off-world.

  “To Earth,” said Danis flatly.

  “We believe so,” Peris replied, but he was surprised that Danis already appeared to be aware of the threat.

  There was a stunned silence. The only one who didn’t look like they’d just been slapped was Danis. Instead, the governor put his head in his hands.

  “Meia warned me,” said Danis. “She told me that she believed this was what the Corps was planning, but I didn’t want to believe her.”

  “You knew?” said Fian. “You knew, and you didn’t tell us? You didn’t tell me?”

  “I didn’t know anything,” replied Danis hotly. “Meia merely suspected. She counseled me to keep what she told me to myself, and remain on guard. She feared that if we revealed even the little she did know, it would spread panic, and might cause the Corps to bring forward its plans. I had to trust her. I had no choice.”

  “Well, it looks like you’ve doomed us all,” said Fian, “you and that damned Mech.”

  Peris felt sorry for the old soldier, his long-time friend.

  “Please,” he said, “you must understand: Danis could not possibly have acted on a whisper. Had he tried to reveal what little he knew, he—and all of you—would have been killed by the Corps.”

  There was a pause while they digested this. Peris thought that even Fian appeared to relent a little, although her arms remained folded across her chest, and she refused to look at her husband.

  “Meia said she’d be back, with help,” said Danis.

  “And she may well be yet,” said Peris. “She, more than anyone, knows the gravity of our situation. She will do what she can.”

  “If she can,” said Althea. Her lips were tight. “After all, she went through Derith too.”

  Peris looked around at these four dear, shocked faces, wishing he hadn’t been the deliverer of such appalling news, and he felt tears come to his eyes. Embarrassed, he looked away.

  “I’m just glad you’re all still here,” he said softly. “I was worried I’d be too late.”

  “When, Peris? Just tell us when,” said Althea, and her jawline grew even tauter, her expression grim. She pushed her wineglass away. “This is no time for sentiment, Captain.”

  “I don’t know to the day, but I have no doubt that very soon large ships will come and unleash their cargo, and the spores will be swept across Earth. That will be it. You ask me when, Althea? All I can say is that it could be anytime now. It might be weeks, it might be days.”

  Fian was staring out the window.

  “When we learned of the outbreak of war, we thought that was why the Diplomats had already begun to leave,” she said. “We assumed that they had been forewarned of the conflict. But then I kept thinking that if we were at war, surely they’d have shipped out many of the Galateans too, as cannon fodder.”

  The Galateans were one of the first species conquered by the Illyri, and were much like large, muscular amphibians in appearance. The Illyri drafted them in to perform the drudge work of war. To their masters they were interchangeable, disposable even, but the Galateans did not resent their overlords. They even welcomed conscription into the Illyri forces, for anything was preferable to the hunger and despair of their home planet. And, in turn, the Galateans got to lord it over other alien species, whether the slave race known as the Agrons, or the violent, rebellious humans.

  “But no,” continued Fian, “for while we have fewer Diplomats, the place is still awash with those toads, and no one seems to be in charge of them anymore.”

  “Some of them have even gone feral,” added Althea. “They’re roving uncontrolled in the countryside. And the Agrons are dying; their immunity medication has stopped arriving, and they’re all getting sick. I thought it was simply cruelty on the part of the Corps, but it’s more than that: they’ve all been left to die with us.”

  Balen had called up a screen and was checking information, including activity around the wormhole nearest Earth. The rest ignored him. Balen, in their experience, was always checking something.

  “So what can we do to stop them?” said Danis.

  Peris moved his glass away too. The wine had lost its appeal. He shook his head slowly, aware of three sets of faces turned toward him—three, because Balen was fiddling about with his screen. It reflected in his wide, lidless eyes.

  “We can do nothing,” said Peris. “That’s why I’ve come here. To take you away. To rescue you.”

  “What?” said Althea, and he swore that she sneered. She really had changed. “Are you going to rescue the whole planet?”

  “Well, obviously I can’t do that. But we can try to get as many Illyri off-world as possible.”

  “What about the humans?” said Althea.

  Peris watched as Fian reached for Althea’s hand, and Althea took it automatically. Their fingers squeezed together tightly, and Althea’s knuckles went white. Danis looked on with a kind of sadness; Fian had given to Althea the comfort that she would not give to him.

  “There are billions of them, Althea, billions,” said Peris. “We barely have enough ships for the Illyri who are still her
e, let alone the entire human race.”

  “Then we must warn them,” said Fian. “They can start to protect themselves, to make plans. There must be shelters they can use.”

  Althea nodded in agreement, and together the two females stood up.

  “Right now?” said Danis. “We haven’t even eaten yet!”

  “You heard Peris. When else?”

  “If you go now, you’ll cause chaos. There will be riots. People will kill each other to get to shelters. We need to think about this, Fian.”

  However, Fian and Althea were already starting toward the door. The situation was moving out of Danis’s control. But then, he realized, he had never entirely been in control. He had always been a puppet of the Corps, and now they were cutting his strings and leaving him to fall.

  Before Danis could say anything else, Balen rose slowly from his chair. His golden skin had taken on a sickly, malarial hue.

  “Look,” he said. He poked a finger through the images in front of him, deftly swiping them together. His movements were so quick that the points of light swirled together like paint thrown in the air, before rearranging themselves into orderly documents once more.

  And they all saw what Balen saw: wormhole activity, barely hours behind Peris. A massive unidentified ship, moving toward Earth.

  “I’ve hacked the system to check for incomings flights to all major stations,” said Balen. “Tomorrow, at thirteen hundred GMT, a number of large craft are scheduled to dock simultaneously. New York . . . Rio . . . Santiago . . . Cape Town . . . Beijing . . . Abuja . . .”

  Balen slid screens around again, nodding to himself as they all watched and waited.

  “All documentation and permissions for the incoming craft are direct from top brass, and signed off by the Illyri president himself, General Krake. Chatter between military bases appears to have reached consensus that additional staff are being drafted in at long last, especially given that the Diplomats have been shipping out many of those they had down here, and not replacing them. They think reinforcements are coming.”

 
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