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    Tracking Pira was easy; Elpida followed the trail of dried-out slime.

    The corridors beyond the resurrection chamber were made of uniform, seamless, silver-grey metal. Cold, windowless, and impossibly clean, without a single particle of dust. Flakes of dried slime stood out on the metal floor, scraps of crumbly translucent biomass caught in searing white illumination, from lights recessed behind thick plastic in the ceiling. Pira must have shed the flakes as the slime had dried on her skin, but the trail was too thick for just one person. The three missing revenants, the absent three who had woken first and left behind their empty coffins, must have all taken the exact same route.

    Landmarks dotted the trail: a leaf-shower of flakes, a crescent of delicate powder, a greasy hand-print on the wall. Pira must have paused to drag on that grey jumpsuit, sloughing off snake-skin quantities of dry slime. Hair had been shaken out, dusting the metal with the remains of the thin, sticky fluid. A stumble, a smear down one wall, proof that somebody had struggled to keep their feet.

    Elpida and her coffin-mates added their own afterbirth moltings as they went.

    Elpida took point. She kept her footsteps light and peeked around each curving corner. If they ran into a Silico construct there was nowhere to hide; their only option was retreat, then diverge from the breadcrumb trail of flakes, into one of the slender, branching paths which radiated outward from each stretch of corridor.

    She hated that idea. It was good tactics but they had neither the equipment nor the cohesion to succeed. The main arterial corridors were wide enough for six abreast — wide enough for six young women to flee without tripping over each other. The side passages were so narrow that a single soldier in a greensuit hardshell could hold off a dozen assailants. But Elpida had no greensuit, no hardshell, and no weapon. She wasn’t confident that she could hold anything at the mouth of a passage, if the others had to run. A Silico murder-machine would go right through her, training and gene-engineering and all.

    And Elpida did not want to leave that trail of skin-shed flakes. Pira obviously knew where she was going.

    Stealth was the only viable strategy. But the others were terrible at it.

    Ilyusha — the heavily augmented girl teetering on the edge of mania — had fallen in behind Elpida, happy to let her lead. Her black-and-red bionic hands were smeared with gore and her face was sticky from slurping up that blue gunk, but she slipped in behind Elpida without a word. She stayed quiet, moved quickly and cleanly, and covered Elpida’s rear every time they passed the mouth of a side-corridor. Her spike-tipped tail cut the air in silence. She didn’t need hand signals or whispered commands. She watched Elpida’s body language with those fire-lit grey eyes, flame behind slate. She didn’t seem to care about her own semi-nudity; she had accepted one of the grey jumpsuits, then tied the uncomfortable polyester around her waist, like a skirt of dead skin.

    But her clawed feet clicked on the metal floor with every step. After an initial moment of frustration, Elpida realised that Ilyusha couldn’t help it.

    Kagami’s augmetic footsteps were softer, cushioned by proper bio-plastic soles, but she still couldn’t walk by herself. Vicky had to half-carry her, Kagami’s delicate and doll-like physique anchored over one shoulder. Kagami kept smothering gasps of pain, panting with the effort of moving her legs, her long black hair stuck to her forehead with sweat. Vicky did her best to move quietly, but she struggled with the burden. Kagami had rejected a jumpsuit as they had left the resurrection chamber: “How am I supposed to get that on with these fucking things attached to me?” Victoria had accepted a jumpsuit, hesitated, then stepped into it and zipped it up.

    Elpida made a private plan: if they had to run, she would scoop up Kagami herself, over her shoulder, dignity be damned.

    Amina stayed silent. In terror she understood stealth. She had accepted a grey jumpsuit too, wriggling inside it with desperate relief, clutching herself as she covered her nudity. She crinkled as she moved.

    Atyle refused to stay quiet. She strode, head high, dark skin glistening with sweat. She had rejected a jumpsuit with a snort. Every time Elpida looked back, Atyle wasn’t even paying attention, studying the walls, or the other girls, or her own hands through her bionic eye. Whenever they stopped to check a corner, she folded her arms and sighed.

    Elpida hadn’t bothered with a jumpsuit either. Range of motion was more important than tissue-thin protection. And she didn’t feel cold.

    The trail of slime-flakes led to a downward ramp. The ramp disgorged Elpida and the others onto an identical floor of arterial corridors and branching capillaries. This process repeated six more times, following the thinning trail of flakes, going down.

    Rooms began to bud off between the narrow branch-corridors. Elpida paused at the first few, to peer in through the long windows in the wall, but the contents were incomprehensible.

    One room held gigantic tanks of soupy grey slop, like watered-down industrial run-off. Another was filled with rows of those same black glass blocks from the resurrection chamber — but these ones were still alive, blinking and flickering with electric life. Yet another room contained a mat of living flesh the size of a sparring field, skin stretched over pulsing meat. Others held cubes of grey metal suspended in a lattice, or vats of cold, still, copper-coloured cream, or upright tubes full of green fluid, hanging from the ceiling.

    Each room had an autodoor for access. They did not open at Elpida’s approach. Some of the rooms also contained human-scale control panels, similar to the one back in the resurrection chamber, studded with switches and buttons and dials. The doors and controls did not match the surroundings.

    A Silico hive — colonised by human beings? Elpida couldn’t figure this out. This space was not meant for human habitation, or even human presence. Human hands had intruded on the design of some other mind.

    After six ramps they hit a security checkpoint.

    The final ramp spat them out in front of a collection of metal detector arches, body-scanner booths, and computer screens. All of it was dead and dark, just as impossibly clean as the smooth corridors behind them, but this space was recognisably human. The floor turned to tiles, the walls had joints and seams, and little orange cones stood on the far side of the checkpoint, to indicate where people should queue.

    The intermittent trail of flakes led through this fossilised checkpoint and out the other side. On the left there was a grey desk with a slender computer screen attached to a core underneath, long dead. On the right was a waiting area, with a metal table and a few chairs bolted to the floor.

    And a window. Floor to ceiling, fifteen feet long.

    Elpida lost control of the others. She lost control of herself. They slumped and stumbled through that dead checkpoint, entranced by that window. She retained just enough sense to notice that Ilyusha alone was not shocked, though the heavily augmented girl still hurried to look, bounding forward and pressing her face to the glass.

    All her life, Elpida had known only one possible landscape. Look out of any window in the exterior wall of Telokopolis — past the blasted, flat, burned-clean scar of the plateau; past the automatic air-defence guns; past the bunkers full of Legion sentries and rookies doing their first tours outside; past the supplementary walls, the forcefields, the ditches, the mines, the alarms, the fire-breaks of concrete and steel; past the outer ring of fortification with its pockmarks and wounds forever being refilled and patched; past the hanging miasma testing the city’s defences with tendrils of spore and rot; and past the inevitable Legion teams stomping along in hardshells, cradling flame-throwers, burning back the ragged edge of plant life — and you would see the green.

    An endless rustling sea of jungle, overgrowth climbing itself in waves of expansion, dying back in ebbs of vegetable decay. From horizon to horizon, hundreds of feet deep from canopy to ground, licking the edge of the plateau, the green stood always ready to engulf the walls of the city. Giant fern-fronds, bristling needle-trunks, strangling vines, carnivorous traps. The green was catalogued, recorded, laid down in a million doctoral theses, explored in more fiction than anybody had time to consume.

    Beyond Telokopolis, the green was the world, and the world was green.

    Elpida and her vat-grown cadre had been bred to walk those depths, the secret dark beneath the canopy, the domain of Silico, of artificial life.

    Beyond the window there was no such colour as green, only black and grey.

    The corpse of a city filled the world.

    Elpida assumed it was a city — structures were spread out to the horizon, like a tier of Telokopolis unrolled and laid flat on the ground. Skeletal survivals like fleshless corpses, empty shells like dead turtles, collapsed ruins like stripped cadavers. Choked with ash, caked in smears of black, damp with mould. The buildings were all shapes and sizes, from the great monuments of thick-bottomed towers to the low sinking barrows of tenements, webbed by the necrotic circulatory system of roads and railways.

    The corpse was riddled with carrion eaters, but Elpida wasn’t sure if they were alive; bulb-shaped creatures clung to the exterior of some of the tallest ruins, reddish-brown, five-legged, perfectly still, each one as large as a combat frame.

    A flat line of segmented grey cut across the horizon, far away, taller than any building. It took Elpida a moment to realise that she was looking at a mountain range. She’d never seen a naked mountain, unclothed in green, outside of a few ancient pictures.

    The sky was black, solid, and still. A patch of dim red may have indicated the location of the sun, or might have been Elpida’s imagination.

    A city-sea of rot. Elpida’s mind groped for meaning, found none, and fell back on training. She dragged her gaze downward. From their vantage point she could see the building they were inside — a stepped pyramid of black metal. It was a long way to the ground. The lower steps of the pyramid were studded with gun emplacements, shiny and black, much cleaner than anything else beyond the window, but still dirty with ash. The base of the structure was a jumble of funnels and walls and bridges of black metal, leading out onto a wide ring of open ground. Other city-buildings had been swept back in a tangle of rubble.

    Elpida recognised the purpose: a perfect breakout position, paired with the cleared space of a killing field.

    Kagami was first to recover her voice. It shook. “I am not supposed to be down here. I always knew you people would blow yourselves up in the end.”

    Vicky tore her eyes from the black ruin. She shot a tight frown at the girl she was still supporting. “What do you mean, you people?”

    “Dirtside throwbacks. Breeders. C-zombies. All of you gagging to nuke each other, whenever one of you is ever so slightly less than perfectly devoted to the fucking beast you all choke on.”

    Vicky spoke with quivering calm. “I don’t think nuclear weapons grew those things on the skyscrapers. Do you?”

    “Demons,” Atyle whispered, but she didn’t seem upset.

    Kagami looked like she’d eaten a lemon. Vicky was too calm. Elpida knew they were both compensating for fear, and knew it could come to blows very quickly. She had no doubt who would win; Kagami couldn’t even walk unaided.

    “Hey, no.” She made her voice sharp with command. “We’re all shocked, we’re all reeling. Do not turn on each other. Stop, now.”

    Vicky swallowed and looked away. Kagami snorted, then attempted once again to stand on her own. Vicky let her go. Kagami wobbled on her augmetic legs, wincing with every step, making a difficult journey toward the office desk opposite the window. Her eyes were glued to the dead computer screen.

    “Hey,” Elpida said. She reached out as Kagami jerked past. “Sit down if you need.”

    Kagami ignored her and staggered over to the metal desk. She had to grab the edge to steady herself. She jabbed at the buttons on the monitor but the machine didn’t wake. She half-fell into the metal chair and reached below the desk, pulling at the side-panels on the computer core, then yanking out bits of wire and frowning at them.

    “I don’t know why I’m doing this,” she said. “None of this is real. None of you are real. This is all a sick joke. Let me out! Pull me out of this!”

    The others were faring worse. Atyle’s mask of satisfied contempt had slipped. She stood with her arms crossed, face composed in blankness, peat-green bionic eye flickering over the ruined landscape. Amina chose not to look at all: she had squeezed her eyes shut, linked her fingers together, and whispered a private prayer under her breath. Ilyusha was pressed to the glass, craning her neck, trying to get a better look down at the ground. Vicky was hugging herself, shaking inside the uncomfortable fabric of the grey jumpsuit, staring out but seeing nothing.

    Elpida should have already recovered. The genetic engineers of Telokopolis had made sure the vat-grown girls were biochemically immune to panic attacks. But Elpida felt the shadow of a weight on her chest.

    Telokopolis must be out there, somewhere beyond that impossible ruin. But where was the green? This undefended ground should have been consumed in hours, the mould populated by sprouting spores, verdant life crawling up from the rot. But this corpse was old, dessicated, abandoned.

    “Ilyusha,” she said. “What are you trying to see out there?”

    “Friends,” Ilyusha said, pouty with disappointment. That made even less sense. Elpida’s head swam.

    She did the only thing she could: she stepped forward and took Vicky gently by the arm, drawing her a few paces away from the others.

    “Vicky,” Elpida said. “I need you to hold it together. If we run into something, I suspect Ilyusha and I are the only ones capable of fighting bare-handed. If that happens, your job is to lead the others away. Understood?”

    Vicky’s pupils were dilated too wide. Her dark skin was breaking out in cold sweat. Her thickly toned muscles were clenched tight.

    “Hold your breath,” she said.

    “What for?”

    Vicky checked back over her shoulder to make sure the others had not heard. Kagami was rummaging in computer guts. Amina was still praying. Ilyusha had slid a few paces further along the window, trying to get a better view of something down below. Atyle was too engrossed in whatever she saw through her bionic eye, the flush of haughty confidence returning to her face.

    Vicky kept her voice low. “I did it earlier. When we were moving through those corridors. I didn’t mean to, I was just trying to stay quiet. I didn’t notice until then.”

    “Notice what?”

    “Do it with me. Hold your breath.” Vicky took a sharp little breath, then held it. Curious and confused, Elpida copied her.

    They stared at each other with stilled breath. Elpida felt no pressure, no instinctive urge to cycle the contents of her lungs. She waited, and waited, and did not feel light-headed.

    “See?” Vicky whispered. Her voice quivered at the edge of madness.

    “I’m breathing now,” Elpida said. She took a deep breath to illustrate her point, re-filling her lungs with the taste of stale air. “So are you.”

    “But we don’t need to. And look at us. We’re not shivering from the cold. Not really. You’re naked and you’re not shivering. What does that mean?”

    Elpida slipped her hand over her own heart. She felt the beat, steady and strong. The view through the window was shocking nonsense, but the lack of breathing didn’t bother her. Her skin was warm. Her heart pumped. Her limbs moved. Vicky copied her, face flickering with confused relief as she felt her own heartbeat.

    “Don’t tell the others,” Elpida said.

    “Wouldn’t dream of it.” Vicky bit her lower lip, trying to cling to a very narrow ledge.

    “We still have to keep moving,” Elpida said. “We still need to get out of here, whatever here is. We need clothes, weapons, food, and water. You’re still my second, if we get separated. Victoria, Vicky, can you hold it together?”

    “I don’t know. Are we alive? Are we dead?”

    Elpida pinched the meat of Vicky’s upper arm, not quite hard enough to hurt. “Feels alive, right? Let’s keep it that way.”

    Vicky forced a laugh. “Okay. Okay, point. I’ll try.”

    “I believe in you,” Elpida told her.

    That forced laugh again. “You don’t even know me.”

    Elpida opened her mouth to say We’ll change that back in Telokopolis; Vicky looked like she would make a good sparring partner, like a raw Legion recruit without any bluster, enough humility to take a loss and learn from the experience, to enjoy the one-on-one process. Elpida wanted to get to know her by how she fought.

    But then, in the corner of her eye, on the horizon beyond the city-corpse, the mountain range moved.

    A shudder. A shift. A minor rotational adjustment of one segment.

    Elpida whipped round. She realised it was not a mountain range at all. Vicky stared out of the window in awe. Atyle froze, natural and bionic eyes both gone wide. Amina had not noticed, deep in private prayer, and was spared the sight, blinking around at the others’ shock. Over by the computer on the desk, Kagami’s mouth had fallen open. She swept long dark hair out of her face.

    “Grave worm,” Ilyusha said. She alone did not seem surprised, attention still glued to the ground below.

    Elpida’s training overrode the awe. She spoke up. “Whatever it is, it’s miles and miles away. And it only twitched. Nothing for us to worry about.” She clapped Vicky on the back. “Silico creatures on that scale don’t hunt humans on foot. We have to keep our attention on things our own scale, that’s the threat.”

    Elpida didn’t say that thing must be bigger than the largest of Silico war-machines. It was like Telokopolis itself had stood up and walked.

    Atyle was staring past Ilyusha, down at the ground. “I do believe you are right, warrior-fool. Your animal here has found company.”

    Ilyusha craned round at Atyle with a stare like hot death, red claws shick-shicking free from the tips of her fingers. Atyle didn’t even notice. Elpida quickly stepped between them, placed a hand on Ilyusha’s bionic shoulder, and met those burning grey eyes.

    “She’s not worth it,” Elpida whispered. “I need you more.”

    It was an old technique, one she’d used on Howl before. A cheap trick. Unfair, but true. Elpida barely knew this girl, but she also knew that if she had judged wrong, she was about to get her guts knocked out of her belly by a handful of augmetic claws.

    Ilyusha bared her teeth. Her eyes brimmed with sudden tears, which Elpida had not expected. Then she turned back to the window and tapped her claws against the glass.

    Figures were streaming toward the base of the pyramid.

    Scuttling through the ash and the rust, over the black-draped ruins, darting between scraps of cover. They moved in little groups, a few of them alone. Elpida quickly counted thirty four distinct scraps of motion, with more vanishing behind twists of dead building. Too far away to make out clearly, they could have been human or Silico, no way to tell. One group of ragged dots stopped and hunkered down. Little puffs of pulverised material filled the air around them. Gunshot impacts.

    A glint in the shell of a nearby building caught Elpida’s eye: a piece of glass reflecting the sun’s death rattle. Clean, polished glass — a telescopic sight.

    “Away from the window,” Elpida ordered. “Now!”

    Vicky didn’t need telling twice, scrambling backward. Amina stood there in confusion until Elpida dragged her away. Atyle followed, but only with great and grand reluctance, head held high. Kagami had half ducked below the desk and struggled to stand again, whining pain as her augmetic legs unfolded.

    Ilyusha didn’t care. She pressed her face against the glass, watching the action down below, and only came when Elpida called her name.


    Beyond the security checkpoint the inside of the pyramid was sparse and utilitarian. Elpida led the others past echoing chambers of grey metal, long flat spaces re-purposed as meeting rooms, divided into holding cells, or full of abandoned medical and laboratory equipment she did not pause to examine. She kept an eye out for weapons but saw none, not even a stick or a club. Stairs led downward, baited with the trail of dried, flaking slime.

    Elpida kept telling herself that Telokopolis was out there.

    Kagami had the right idea in trying to get computer equipment working, but she was thinking too small. Rebuilding and booting up an ancient personal terminal would not give them access to entanglement comms, or radio, or anything else. They needed to find the nerve centre of this place — before that crowd down in the streets got inside.

    Or was that their rescue party? Elpida was tight with purpose but her world was falling apart. This was not a Silico hive. The green was — gone. And this place was empty, dead, silent as a tomb.

    She focused on leading the others. On keeping them moving. She knew how to do that.

    The trail of flakes led them into an atrium — a wide open space with a high ceiling held up by six pillars of silver-grey metal. Other exits led away, behind the pillars. The roof was a single piece of filthy glass. The black sky made the light feel greasy on Elpida’s skin.

    In the atrium was a corpse.

    A full stop at the end of a long smear of blood on the floor, limbs crumpled and broken, wearing a shredded mass of crimson fabric which had once been a grey jumpsuit. It might have been Pira — the face was a ruined mess, half gnawed away. The hair might be flame-coloured, but it was stained carmine and scarlet. Ribcage cracked and levered open, skull unscrewed and brains scooped out, great handfuls of flesh torn off her thighs. She lay in a spreading pool of blood. She hadn’t been dead for long.

    Another girl was crouched over the corpse, eating.

    It was too late to turn back and slip away in stealth. Elpida froze, ready to spring forward, eyes flicking over the pillars for a hidden ambush. Vicky and Kagami stumbled to a stop, entangled together. Atyle didn’t say a word. But Amina whimpered in terror and clamped her hands to her mouth. She scuffed and stumbled as she tried to back away.

    Ilyusha stomped forward three clicking steps, tail lashing the air, and shouted a wordless challenge. “Aaah!”

    The ghoul paused in her feast and looked over her shoulder.

    She was human, with a human face. Bright green eyes, wide with fascinated madness; rose-blonde hair falling about cheekbones of hummingbird-wing delicacy; and a smear of bloody meat all around her lips. She straightened up from her kill and turned around to face Elpida. The cannibal was wrapped in a single piece of thick, pale, filthy clothing, a cloak which hung a few inches from the ground, concealing her feet, leaving her arms free. Her hands were smeared with gore. Each finger was tipped a talon of bone.

    “Nnnnn!” Ilyusha grunted at her.

    The cannibal lit up with joy. “Freshies! Little bitty freshies!” Her eyes bounced between Elpida and the others, then went past them. “Cinney! Cinney? No Cinney? Never any Cinnery!”

    Amina almost lost control, stumbling back. “Oh God, oh God, please, no—”

    “God?! God!” The cannibal cackled. She took a step forward — loping, bouncing.

    “Fuck off!” Ilyusha screamed at her.

    Elpida stepped forward too, level with Ilyusha, ready to intercept or dodge or leap at the cannibal — the girl didn’t look like she weighed much, but she probably had a weapon under that cloak. Elpida raised a hand, palm out, authoritative. “Back up, right now.”

    “Orrrrrr?” The cannibal girl jerked and wobbled like she didn’t have enough bones in her body. She made those green eyes extra wide. “Or what? Or you’re gonna eat me?” She burst into a cackle. “Early bird gets the little wormies! You don’t have to outrun me. You only have to be faster thaaaaan … ” Her eyes flickered back and forth, then settled on Kagami, still half-clinging to Vicky’s support. The cannibal pointed one gore-streaked bone-tipped finger. “Her!”

    “What.” Kagami sounded numb.

    Vicky hissed: “I won’t drop you, dumb-ass. Hold on.”

    Elpida took a step toward the girl, palms out, watching for a tell-tale twitch of motion. “There are six of us and one of you. Back away, right now, or I’ll—”

    “Ready or not! Here I come!”

    The cannibal girl rocked back to pounce — and Ilyusha hit her like a threshing machine. Metal claws sliced cloth and raked pale flesh. Her tail whipped and stabbed, slamming through the meat of the cannibal’s torso. Ilyusha snapped and roared and bit down on a hand. The cannibal girl cartwheeled backward in a motion that seemed impossible, and kicked from an angle which made no sense.

    Ilyusha went flying. She slammed into one of the pillars and slid to the ground, stunned and dazed.

    The cannibal girl howled with laughter. “How many times you been round, huh? Fucking metal?! Weak shit!”

    Elpida raised her fists and prepared to take the inevitable charge. But she didn’t understand what she was looking at.

    Beneath the cloak the cannibal girl did not have any legs. She did not have a proper torso. Her chest cut off beneath her collarbone, no space for lungs or stomach or heart — unless her organs were packed into the two massive, white-furred, muscular arms which sprouted from that truncated rib-cage, serving for locomotion. Instead of feet, she had two huge simian-like hands, tipped with spikes of bone just like her fingers.

    Grinning red and bloody, she cartwheeled forward to pull Elpida’s head off her shoulders.

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