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Empire, Page 2

John Connolly

  And Syl.

  Face it, Paul thought, not for the first time, you’re in love with an Illyri. In an ideal world, you’d bring her civilization to its knees and then run away with her through the ruins. How do you think that’s going to work out? Oh, and there’s also the small matter that she’s millions of light-years away, separated from you by countless wormholes, and imprisoned in a convent run by a bunch of weird nuns who worship knowledge as a god. You should have just dated a girl from Leith, or even Dundee, or, at a push, Inverness.

  Beside Peris sat Faron. Although Peris exceeded him in age, experience, and wisdom, Faron was technically the ranking Illyri officer on board, and this was his first full mission. The Brigades were used to give new and inexperienced Illyri officers like Faron a taste of command. As far as Paul was concerned, Faron was particularly useless: his arrogance concealed his uncertainty, and he was contemptuous of the humans under his command, a poor attempt to mask his fear of them. Faron had only joined them on this trip because he needed to rack up a certain number of missions before he could leave the Brigades behind.

  Paul watched him sweat. Steven’s piloting of the shuttle was clearly terrifying Faron as much as Cutler, but Faron didn’t want to appear weak in front of the humans, or Peris.

  “Are we there yet?” said Cutler.

  Paul closed his eyes again, and dreamed of Syl.


  Elda muttered her vague thanks for Syl’s timely intervention as she followed her from the chamber. Together they walked along in awkward silence until they reached the junction where the Twelfth Realm joined the Thirteenth, and Elda turned to go. She paused, and then touched Syl’s arm briefly.

  “Take care,” she said, looking at Syl directly for the first time since she’d arrived at the Marque all those months before. “These old halls are treacherous. My friend Kosia was killed by a falling wall . . .”

  She trailed off, looking uncertain, as though considering saying more, yet fearful of the consequences if she did.

  “Your friend Kosia?” said Syl. Instantly she regretted the disbelief that seemed to slip unbidden into her voice as she repeated the words your friend, as though friendship were somehow beyond Elda.

  Elda stepped away and looked down, her shoulders slumping even farther.

  “Yes,” she said, “my friend. We joined together.”

  “I’m sorry,” Syl started to say, but Elda was already scurrying away into the Thirteenth with not a glance behind her.

  Syl couldn’t decide if she wanted to shake the Novice, or hug her. Elda was so uninvolved, so passive. She faded into the background, limp and washed out, doing everything she could not to draw attention to herself, so anxious to avoid any unnecessary contact with others that the sleeves of her robes were grimy from pressing against the walls of the Marque. And yet clearly she felt sadness at the death of her friend, this Kosia, of whom Syl had never heard before. She was hurting, but who would ever know it to look at her? Who would ever look at Elda anyway, when she hardly seemed to be there at all?

  • • •

  Still shaken, Syl headed back to her quarters. Despite what Cale had said, her duties for the day were done. She had spent much of the afternoon in the Scriptorium adjoining the main library in their Realm, together with her best friend, Ani, translating a series of abstract poems from English to Illyri, before Ani rushed off to her special classes, the lessons she attended with the other “Gifted” Novices.

  Syl had continued translating, but her mind had been anywhere but here, everywhere but now, and eventually the Sister in charge of the exercise sent her off early, tutting at her incompetence. Syl was relieved, for it was slow, painstaking work, and she couldn’t see why they bothered anyway. What use did the Sisterhood have for the musings of long-dead poets from a distant world? But then her tutors argued that the poems represented knowledge, however ancient and alien, and knowledge was the lifeblood of the Sisterhood. No knowledge could really be described as useless; there was simply knowledge that could be applied, and knowledge that had not yet found its application.

  And, of course, it was part of their training as Novices. Translating, transcribing, reading, writing—that was how the majority of Novices spent most of their first three years. In between these tasks, they studied Illyri history, universal geography, mathematics, the sciences, and much more. Syl and Ani excelled in only one subject: existential biology, which explored the zoology and botany of conquered worlds, most specifically Earth.

  The subject Syl disliked most was applied diplomacy. It was a mix of Illyri etiquette, social studies, psychology, and politics, with rather too much practicing of polite conversation, folding of hands neatly on laps, and discreet dabbing at one’s mouth to surreptitiously remove hypothetical crumbs for Syl’s liking. The subject’s purpose, as far as she could tell, was to train Nairene Sisters to enter the larger Illyri world and charm—or manipulate—everyone they met to further the Sisterhood’s own ends. For Syl, it was only useful in teaching her how the Sisterhood operated, and how it viewed the world outside the Marque. Know your enemy: that was what her father had taught her.

  Her father, Lord Andrus . . .

  She swallowed hard at the memory of him, and her eyes prickled. No matter how much she tried, she could not quite resign herself to his loss, even though six months had gone, fully half an Earth-year since she had last seen him. But his loss was more than just the distance between them, for still she recalled the strange sweet smell of his breath, and the vacant look in his eyes when he had last held her and said goodbye. He was infected—his mind, his will, even his internal organs taken over by an unknown alien organism, leaving his body as just a carrier for the parasite that dwelt within it. Yet he looked and felt as warm and real as the only parent she’d ever known, and still loved with all her being.

  And the public face of the Nairene Sisterhood, the Archmage Syrene, was responsible. Somehow, she had implanted that thing in Syl’s father. Somehow, she had stolen him away just before Syl could say goodbye, and poisoned him from within. Syrene was in league with these entities, these alien life-forms, but to what end Syl could not say. The handful of Resistance fighters who knew of their existence called them the “Others,” and Syl had seen them with her own eyes, had borne witness to them at a remote castle in Scotland before fire and explosions destroyed the evidence, leaving only smoke and denial. Still, she knew, and so did a handful of Resistance fighters on Earth, even though what they had seen raised only more questions.

  Syl had sworn to find out the truth, to avenge her father, to free him from that creature inside him if there was any way at all, though she felt consumed by sadness so overwhelming she thought it might crush her. She had to believe there was hope, and the Nairene Sisterhood—guardians of all universal knowledge—was where hope lay.

  • • •

  Yet the Marque was enormous: a series of interlinked sections, or Realms—as many as twenty in total—stretching throughout Avila Minor. Syl had first seen the Marque from above, when their shuttle was coming in to land. The boulders and sculpted cliffs that reared from the surface reminded her of Petra, the great rock-cut city in Jordan back on Earth, but now that she was inside it, she knew the Marque was more like the huge, busy mounds built by termites on the African savannah.

  The walls of the visible buildings were thick, but much of the Marque lay hidden below the surface. Each Realm had its own landing pad for shuttles, and its own emergency systems, stores, generators, and solar farms. While the individual Realms were connected, most could be sealed off from their neighbors in an emergency, or in the event of an attack—although who would dare attack the Marque? By day, any invading force would be burned to a crisp by the sun, and by night it would be devoured by the vicious creatures that hunted in the dark. The moon would take care of any hostile force long before the Marque’s defenses could be breached.

ce her arrival, Syl had remained imprisoned within these walls, feeling like a termite herself, digging, burrowing, going about the business of being a student, but all the time looking for clues to the Sisterhood’s true aims.

  Well, when she wasn’t getting into trouble for protecting poor, wretched Elda.

  And yet, and yet . . .

  Syl was silently grateful for Elda and her submissive ways, because without Elda’s example she herself would never have known how to even begin to explore those parts of the Marque that were off-limits to her. She subtly watched how Elda slunk everywhere like a beaten dog, sidestepping the other Novices as they strode confidently by, slinking unnoticed into the shadows, hanging her head so as not to make eye contact, ducking nimbly into fissures in the rock face to escape comment. It was four years since Elda had first arrived at the Marque, but in that time she’d become as much a part of the place as the furniture, and as unremarkable as a wall or chair. Syl had learned that Elda had ceased going to class in her first months as the Nairenes’ expectations of her faded away to nothing, for she was so clearly born servile and ignorant, and so obviously doomed to remain that way. The Sisters had happily handed her drudge chores, setting her to cleaning and dusting just to keep her out of the way.

  By now Elda should by rights have been a Half-Sister, clad in the proud sea-green robes of those who had all but completed their education, who were only awaiting investiture into the order as full Sisters, but still Elda trailed around dull-eyed in her threadbare butter-yellow robes, the robes the Novices wore every day in the Marque, and gradually her garments had faded to the white that the lowliest, most unpromising order of the Sisterhood—the Service Sisters—donned when they were supervising cleaning, or on kitchen duty.

  And somehow, somewhere Elda became invisible to those who believed themselves her betters, just as servants often do.

  Syl had realized this as she was on the verge of almost ceasing to notice Elda too, and she had quickly taken her cue from the older girl’s cleaning headscarf and washed-out clothing, wrapping her own telltale bronze hair in a piece of sheet torn from her bed linen, and even stealing one of Elda’s dirty-white robes from the gymnasium when the girl had been hard at work in the showers in nothing but her underwear, scrubbing the moldy floors clean as water splashed on her bent back. Guiltily, Syl had replaced the garment with her best robe, crisp and fresh and yellow, but Elda seemed not to notice, putting Syl’s clothes on without even raising an eyebrow.

  Slowly, Syl had started to explore, modeling herself on Elda as she did so, gradually moving farther into the places that were off-bounds to a mere first-year Novice, a bucket of cleaning utensils and dusters in her hand at all times. She did not risk venturing out often, and certainly followed no pattern, but when she did explore she hunched her shoulders, shuffled her feet, she practiced disappearing into the background. On the rare occasions when she was stopped or questioned, she claimed to be there in place of Elda or on the orders of a Service Sister, mumbling and apologizing until she was sent on her way, sometimes with a sharp word and once with a very nasty pinch to the soft flesh on the underside of her upper arm. Yet nobody seemed unduly perturbed by her presence. After all, those within the Sisterhood accepted the honor of their place here: surely there could be none inside that intended harm or serious insurrection. There were so many females crowded into this space that it was relatively easy to disappear in the throng.

  So Syl dusted libraries that weren’t meant for juniors; she wiped surfaces in higher Scriptoriums where the older Novices worked; she mopped floors in the Half-Sisters’ hallways, listening to their conversations; and she opened books that were not for her eyes. But so many corridors remained unexplored—countless warrens of rooms and chambers and private quarters, of dead ends and blank walls, and the main channels all led inevitably to the sealed door at the end of the Thirteenth: the sealed door painted with the red eye of the Sisterhood.

  Too often, with her efforts frustrated, she’d lie on her bed, hatching new schemes as she dreamed of how she could make her world—indeed, all worlds—right again.

  Yet sometimes she found herself dreaming of other things and other places too, dreaming of warm sunshine and the smell of roses, of dewy grass and birdsong, of an eagle soaring against heavy Scottish skies, of a deer walking beside an icy Highland stream, of fingers drawing a heart on her back . . .

  Dreaming of the human boy she’d kissed on Earth.

  Dreaming of Paul Kerr.


  Paul was roused from his private thoughts by Steven’s voice rasping over the comms system.

  “Destination in sight. Touchdown in five clicks.”

  “Thank God,” said Cutler. “Tell your brother I’ll walk back.”

  Faron also looked relieved at the prospect of finally landing. He swallowed his nausea for long enough to issue an order.

  “Standard scan,” he said. “Quick as you can.”

  A standard scan was the minimum required for landing in possibly unsecured territory, as it searched for signs of movement, heat signatures, and carbon-based life. Peris seemed about to say something, but instead remained silent. Ahead of them loomed the exploration platform, designed to probe for mineral deposits. Torma was believed to be rich in iron ore, gold, and uranium, although, as with everything else, the Illyri had their own names for them. Exploration platforms were typically staffed by scientists, engineers, and seismologists, who would assess the viability of mining the resources. The platform on Torma had been dropped ten weeks earlier, and was not due for retrieval until the end of its six-month assessment mission.

  Unfortunately, all communication with the platform had ceased shortly after its first month, and the Envion had been dispatched to investigate and, if necessary, perform a rescue and retrieval mission.

  “Scan negative,” said Steven. “All clear to land.”

  “Circle,” said Faron.

  Steven did as he was ordered. The shuttle soared over and around the exploration platform. It resembled a small fortress, with high steel walls surrounding a central courtyard of desert sand. At its northern end stood a cluster of buildings: laboratories and living quarters for the small survey team. To the south was what appeared to be a long pipe, one end buried deep in the sand. This was the hull of the primary search device, and protected a complicated mass of drilling, coring, and cutting equipment. A raised walkway linked it to the laboratory complex, allowing samples to be easily transported for analysis. Lights blinked on the platform’s various masts and towers. A small civilian shuttle stood on its sole landing pad, but there were no signs of life.

  “Were they armed?” asked Faron. His knowledge of drilling platforms and their operation wouldn’t have occupied much time in a conversation.

  “Just basic pulse weapons,” said Peris. “The shuttle has a single seventy-millimeter cannon mounted on its underside, but that’s all.”

  Faron detected a note of disapproval in Peris’s voice.

  “The planet was cleared as I-2,” he told Peris. “No further protection was deemed necessary.”

  The Illyri classified planets according to two primary designations—I for Inhabited and U for Uninhabited. The first designation allowed for a series of numerical progressions: 1 was basically microbial life; 2, lesser unintelligent and generally unthreatening life-forms—insects, lizards, small mammals; 3 was significant life, with lower-level species of some intelligence, the equivalent of Earth’s apes; and 4 was an advanced civilization. So far, only Earth had qualified as a 5: an advanced civilization with the potential capacity for interplanetary travel, if only within its own system.

  The initial life-form survey of Torma had revealed little indication of life beyond bugs and the peculiar lizardlike creatures that fed upon them, which the Illyri had nicknamed “tormals.” They seemed to combine the scaled bodies and cold-blooded metabolisms of reptiles with a thick, r
etractable exoskeleton. This shield could be folded away like wings until the creature felt under threat, whereupon the exoskeleton was activated, sealing the lizard inside a hard black shell. Some of the scientists and engineers on Torma had begun keeping tormals as pets—despite standing orders against such practices—for the little lizards were content to spend their time eating, sleeping, and playing with colored balls, which they fetched and returned in the manner of tiny dogs. They rarely activated their protective shells in the company of the Illyri, and it remained a mystery as to why the mechanism existed at all. It was suggested that it might be a kind of evolutionary hangover, a form of protection against something that no longer existed, but which was by now so embedded in the development of the creatures—like the human appendix, as De Souza had explained to them, by way of comparison—that it had not been discarded.

  Paul hadn’t contradicted De Souza, even though he seemed to recall that scientists had, in fact, discovered that the purpose of the appendix was to store helpful bacteria. Besides, just because something didn’t easily reveal the reason for its existence wasn’t the same thing as not having one at all.

  “Take us down,” said Faron. “Land inside the perimeter, but stay at the controls and keep the shuttle primed. I want us to be able to leave here in an instant, if necessary.”

  “In the blink of an eye, you might even say,” a jaded voice announced.

  It was Thula, the Zulu corporal. Faron shot Thula a hateful glance, but said nothing. Like all Illyri, Faron did not have eyelids. Instead his eyes were protected by a nictitating membrane similar to that found in birds, reptiles, and some mammals. He knew that Thula had made a joke at his expense, but he wasn’t about to reprimand the youth. If Faron hid a secret fear of the human troopers, he failed utterly to disguise the fact that Thula terrified him.