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John Connolly

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  For Cameron and Alistair

  And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.

  Genesis 1:26

  Extract from the Chronicles, Book 7, Section 13:

  Of the Assassinations on Erebos


  It is recorded that the Second Civil War started with the destruction by the Diplomatic Corps of the vast Military base known as Melos Station, but in truth the killings began earlier that day, on the nearby moon of Erebos. It was there that the Archmage Syrene, public face of the Nairene Sisterhood, was due to wed the Military hero Lord Andrus. Under the guise of the celebrations, Syrene dispatched a group of Novices with psychic powers to murder all those who might have opposed the Corps’ seizure of power. This effort succeeded only in part, for the assassins were themselves destroyed at the last by the intervention of another Novice, the only child of Lord Andrus, the child known as Syl Hellais—Syl the Earthborn.

  Syl the Destroyer.

  But she was not alone in disrupting Syrene’s plans, for another force, led by the human Resistance fighter Paul Kerr, infiltrated Erebos in the hope of rescuing Syl from the Sisterhood. Using a captured Illyri vessel renamed the Nomad, and aided by the Illyri officer, Peris, as well as the biomechanical organisms known as Meia and Alis, Kerr’s human crew succeeded in freeing Syl, and fleeing Erebos.

  The Nomad was pursued relentlessly, as those on board knew of the Corps’ dark secret: the Diplomats had allied themselves with the parasitic alien species known as the Others and had agreed to deliver entire worlds to them. The greatest of these sacrifices was to be Earth, the most advanced civilization yet encountered in the Illyri Conquest. Even Syl herself was not unaffected by the Others, for her own father had become a victim of the contagion.

  The Corps, bound to the Others, set about transporting infectious spores from the harvesting facility at Archaeon to the planet Earth. They had become complicit in genocide, but at the time only the Nomad and its crew had the knowledge to stop what was to come. Under threat of capture or destruction, the Nomad vanished into the Derith wormhole, from which no ship had ever returned.

  War raged. Friends no longer recognized one another. Families were ripped asunder: brother against brother; wife against husband; father against daughter.

  And the Illyri Empire began to tear itself apart.




  Together the two old soldiers strolled the hallways of Edinburgh Castle. On a fine morning such as this the building appeared more beautiful than ever, vast and imposing, a vision of its former glory. Jasmine bloomed heady and sweet in the courtyards, its scent wafting through open doorways on a summer breeze. Gray doves cooed at the windows, and shafts of light spilled onto freshly swept floors. Even the sandstone walls had been buffed, and now the buttresses and buildings of the castle gleamed atop their rock in the pale Edinburgh sun.

  All of this had been done at the command of the last Illyri governor of the islands of Britain and Ireland, Lord Danis.

  It was blissfully quiet, also at Lord Danis’s instruction, quieter than the old castle had been in all its long history. No soldiers bustled past, no patrol vehicles rumbled by, no airships zipped overhead, no gunfire sounded from beyond the walls, and so the lifelong comrades could continue their daily walk without interruption. It was as if the Illyri race had never been here, nor the tourists that once thronged the cobbled courtyards, nor the medieval kings, Jacobite rebels, and Celtic fighters who had preceded them. Perhaps even the long-ago footfalls of the English conquerors had never worn slow pathways into the flagstone floors. Here, in the company of Captain Peris, his long-standing companion, Lord Danis hoped to find a little peace.

  The pair moved gradually toward the main castle entrance, tracing the routes they’d known for so long yet meeting nobody they recognized—in fact, seeing nobody at all. They were alone in the castle. At the gateway they stood beneath the Latin script carved above the archway.

  “Nemo me impune lacessit,” Danis read, and there was mockery in his voice.

  He always stopped and considered the words at this point on their regular walks. Sometimes he made no comment; sometimes he shrugged; sometimes he shook his head; sometimes he swore. On more that one occasion he had broken down and wept, though that had not happened for some time now. Perhaps his heart was finally mending, thought Peris. Or hardening.

  “No one who harms me will go unpunished,” translated Peris, as he always did.

  “It would be better if it read ‘No good deed will go unpunished,’ ” said Danis, and after a moment he sighed. “I should never have let them go, Peris.”

  Peris managed a weak smile. “You must miss her terribly,” he said.

  “Miss whom?” said Danis, and he jabbed angrily at a button on the wall. Immediately the hologram of the castle disappeared and they were once again standing beside a window overlooking a nighttime garden, where milky evening moths supped from heavy, stinking blossoms. Dual moons shone brightly in the sky above, illuminating the high wall that enclosed the grounds of their gracious residence.

  Their gracious prison.

  “Why, the Lady Fian, of course,” said Peris. “Your wife. You miss your wife.”

  “Yes, of course,” came the governor’s reply. He had been forced to abandon Fian on Earth during the last panicked exodus from the planet, and it was assumed that she was dead. He lived with his guilt, but only barely.

  Danis laughed, but it was a hard, clattering sound. “For a moment I thought you meant my darling daughter,” he said.

  “Well, you miss Ani too, naturally,” agreed Peris.

  “No!” Danis spat the denial out like a piece of bad meat. “Not my daughter. Never her. Ani is no longer blood to me.”

  Peris opened his mouth to protest, but Danis had turned to leave, and his back was as solid, his heart as impenetrable, as the walls surrounding the lush garden. The stooped Illyri muttered to himself as he went, declaring that he had had quite enough for today, that he was fantasizing about his bed, and as the governor shuffled away the security bracelet on his ankle flashed once, transmitting details of his movements to those who watched them, night and day.

  • • •

  Alone but not tired—for how could one be tired after a virtual stroll around a nonexistent castle, around buildings that had long since been reduced to rubble and ash?—Peris stared out into the silver-lined darkness. In truth, he wasn’t sure what to think about Ani, or what to believe.

  As far as Danis was concerned, his daughter had betrayed them all. She was a true Nairene, turning her back on family and friends in favor of the red witches. She had stood by while her own father was locked up, leaving her mother forsaken on an alien world, and Danis refused to believe her claims that his imprisonment was necessary for his own protection. His only child, whom he had once loved so much—and still did, deep in his soldier’s heart—was dead to him.

  Yet Ani was nearly twenty-one now, and in terms of the planet where she had been born, according to the traditions of Earth, she would soon come of age. However, Peris suspected that Ani had grown up much earlier than that, four years earlier in fact, on the day of the teenage killings on Erebos.

  The day that started the
civil war.

  He remembered it as if it was yesterday, but sometimes he wondered if he truly remembered it at all. Could he really trust his own recollection when, at the time, the flesh on his arm was being eaten away as if by virulent, ravenous bacteria, apparently at the instigation of a teenage girl, a mere novice of the Nairene Sisterhood? He wouldn’t have believed it himself if those around him hadn’t been dying too, by fire, or in fountains of blood, or with their bones inexplicably fractured by invisible, violent hands, the audible snapping a soundtrack to their agonies.

  And then Syl Hellais—the daughter of Peris’s old master, Lord Andrus—had intervened, a tornado of fury turning all the destructive forces in the room back on their makers, and there had been more suffering, more death, and the bodies had piled up around him, so many young, broken bodies. Ani had arrived too, and words were exchanged between the two friends, harsh words that could not be unsaid, and a lifelong friendship had crumpled as if it were nothing.

  Still, Syl had left, and Ani had stayed. Like a silver-haired angel, she’d remained by Peris’s side, holding his hand, until the Archmage Syrene had appeared.

  What had happened in all the years since now seemed inevitable—that much Peris had come to understand. Yet still, he clung to the words Ani had uttered before Syl had fled, for they seemed to be the only hope left for his fractured, war-torn people.

  “You seem determined to forget that the Sisterhood was founded with a noble purpose,” Ani had told Syl, “but I shall make it my mission to reclaim that purpose, however long it takes . . .”

  Peris had tried to explain all this to Lord Danis, but he would hear none of it.

  As for Paul, Syl, and those who had fought alongside them, they were surely dead, because nothing that entered the Derith wormhole ever emerged from it again. Peris just hoped their deaths had been clean, and quick. Sometimes a quick death was all that one could hope for. But perhaps they were all beyond hope itself now, even those still left alive.

  What they really needed was a miracle.




  The ship before them was less mechanical than organic. It was clearly made of some form of alloy, but its form resembled that of a great manta ray freed from the hold of the sea and now swimming through the greater immensity of space: smooth, flowing, elegant—a creature of breathtaking beauty and potential lethality.

  The surface of the vessel showed no lights, no windows, and no sign of weapons. It reflected the space around it, so that it seemed a thing composed of darkness and stars. It dwarfed the Nomad, and was significantly larger than even the greatest of the Illyri destroyers and carriers that moved back and forth through the wormholes.

  About the length of ten or eleven football stadiums laid end to end, Paul Kerr calculated, and half as wide. Even in this desperate situation—tired, hunted, and having committed the Nomad to a wormhole from which no ship had ever returned, only to be confronted by an alien craft of unknown origin and intention—he was almost amused to find himself thinking in terms of football fields, although as a source of amusement it was only one step away from hysteria.

  For he was terrified: they all were.

  And as the majesty and dread of the unknown craft impacted upon them, the crew of the comparatively tiny Nomad—as inconsequential as a beetle before a buffalo, a minnow before a whale—found themselves truly lost for words. Perhaps then it was fitting that the first of them to speak was neither Illyri nor human, but biomechanical.

  “It’s wonderful,” said Alis, and Paul wondered if the Mech had somehow busted a circuit coming through the wormhole. Perhaps it was a case of the mechanical responding to the mechanical, because Alis was an artificial life-form; faced with an engineering marvel like the one that currently dominated their field of view, she might have been more inclined to appreciate its construction than the four humans and one Illyri who stood alongside her, and were instead worried about the distinct possibility of dying. To Paul’s left, Meia, the other Mech, remained silent, but her face betrayed graver concern than Alis’s.

  “Please don’t let ‘It’s wonderful’ be the last words that I hear,” said Thula.

  The big Zulu was Paul’s sergeant, and it was clear that their thoughts were running along similar lines.

  “Maybe they’re friendly?” suggested Steven hopefully. He was Paul’s younger brother, and was currently occupying the copilot’s chair beside Alis. He glanced at Alis as he asked the question, but his girlfriend—if that was the appropriate term for a biomechanical organism at least twice his age, thought Paul—was too in awe of the ship even to hear the question.

  “Activity,” said Meia. “Starboard wing of the vessel. It’s firing something.”

  Paul saw it seconds after Meia. A hatch had opened in the alien ship, and now an object was approaching at speed.

  “Ah hell,” said Thula.

  “What is it?” asked Paul. “A torpedo?”

  “Our systems can’t identify it,” said Alis.

  “Come on, Alis! I don’t want to find out its purpose only when it blows us to pieces.”

  “I’m trying!” said Alis.

  “I can target it and take it out,” said Rizzo, the fourth human on board the Nomad. “But our weapons are almost exhausted. If we end up in a fight, we may be reduced to throwing our shoes at them.”

  “Lock on to it,” said Paul. “On my command—”


  They all looked to the owner of the voice, even Alis.

  Syl Hellais stepped forward, and Paul felt his skin prickle as she brushed against him. She was no longer the Syl with whom he had fallen in love on Earth, the Illyri girl struggling through the Highlands, hunted by her own people and surrounded by the hostile faces of the human Resistance who fought the Illyri occupation. Back then she had been dependent on Paul to keep her safe, or so he had believed. But in the time that they had been apart—Paul conscripted to the Brigades with his brother, Syl a virtual prisoner of the Nairene Sisterhood on the Marque with her friend Ani—she had become a being transformed, a creature who was both Syl and Not-Syl. She had powers beyond Paul’s comprehension. She could bend others to her will, cloud their minds, even kill them, all without the slightest physical contact. Paul had watched her do it, and he realized to his horror that he was now slightly afraid of this female creature for whom he also felt so much love. He had no idea how long she had kept this secret hidden, and he wondered how much else she might be hiding from him. He had to be able to trust her, for the sake of his crew as much as for himself.

  For if he could not trust her, neither could he love her.

  “Syl!” he snapped, frustrated.

  “Don’t do anything,” she said, then, as an afterthought, she added, “please.”

  “We can’t just sit here and let it come.”

  “We must,” she said.

  She wasn’t even looking at him. Her eyes were fixed on the ship.


  But Syl had blocked him out. All of her attention and energy were directed at the vessel before them. She allowed her mind to drift, passing through the hull of the Nomad and out into the depths of space. She shivered for a moment. Paul saw it and reached out for her in concern, but thought better of touching her when a blue crackle of static electricity snaked out from her body like a tiny bolt of lightning and struck his hand, causing him to snatch it back in pain. Syl’s consciousness passed through the approaching alien object—stone metal circuit unknown unknown scan weapon scan—and drew closer to the ship, seeing it, feeling it, exploring its surface, probing for weaknesses, a point of entry, a—

  Her thoughts exploded in a babble of voices, as though she had inadvertently tapped into a million—no, a billion—different conversations. The force of it flung her consciousness back into her body, the recoil sending her stumbling against the Nomad’s hull.

  “Don’t fire,” she said as she recovered herself. “Please.
Don’t even move. Do nothing. Do you hear me? Do nothing!”

  The tone of her voice changed on the final word. It echoed and resonated. Paul felt his body grow still, as though held in place by unseen bonds. He did not struggle against them, though. He did not want to. He found he was no longer quite as afraid. Only his head was capable of movement. He looked at Syl, and her eyes flicked to his. Her lips did not move, yet he heard her voice speak to him.

  “Trust me,” it said.

  And he knew that it was Syl who was doing this, Syl who was holding them in place, Syl who was keeping them from acting against the incoming threat. They had no choice but to do as she said. She had taken all other options from them. Even Meia had lifted her hands from the controls.

  Syl’s influence might have reduced Paul’s fear of the alien threat, but as he stood fixed in place, watching the unknown object grow from a gleaming dot to a revolving orb the size of a small car, his fear of Syl increased. Trust: she had picked the very word that had passed through his mind only moments before. Was it a coincidence, or had she somehow been listening to his thoughts? Could she do that? Were her powers that great?

  And then the extent of Syl’s abilities, and the alien ship, and the orb, were no longer his only sources of concern. The Derith wormhole behind them bloomed for an instant, like a flower opening then collapsing upon itself, and from it emerged another threat: the sleek silver form of the Illyri hunter, a ship of the Diplomatic Corps that had been pursuing them for days, seeking their destruction. From the corner of his eye, he followed its approach on the screens embedded in the intelligent glass of the cockpit windows, so that it was superimposed over the reality of the alien vessel, like a small pale ghost.

  Syl’s hold over him diminished as she was distracted by the new arrival. Immediately he barked instructions to his crew.