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    Elpida had made sure that every member of the cadre was trained in close-quarters combat — unarmed or otherwise. Even the few who had no natural aptitude, like Bug, or Shade. At thirteen years old she’d spent six painstaking months personally coaching Shade every day, both of them black and blue all over, sleeping together in each others’ scent, until Shade could last five minutes against Elpida herself. The cadre hardly needed help to work together — they had proven that with their first group kill at six years old. But one-on-one was different. Elpida knew that every vat-born pilot must be able to match a Legion soldier on the sparring floor mat.

    For respect, Old Lady Nunnus had explained once. The Legionaries will look down on you, or worse. But you rely on their support, and we all rely on what you girls are going to do. Don’t let them see you as science experiments. Go to the sparring chambers, take the duels. Even if you all lose, every time, enter in the spirit of honest competition. Let them see that you’re just people.

    Most of the cadre’s real combat time was spent cradled inside pilot capsules, slotted into the sockets of their combat frames, linked to the organic constructs through the mind-machine interface. Close-quarters training was a kind of vanity; bare knuckles meant nothing against Silico. But Elpida wanted every one of her clade-sisters to feel comfortable holding a monoedge sword, through the gauntlets of a hardshell. Just in case.

    Elpida did not have a monoedge sword, or a fighting knife, or even a big stick. She had no hardshell. She had naked skin and two fists.

    The four-armed cannibal girl cartwheeled toward Elpida, howling bloody laughter from a gore-streaked mouth; her movements made no sense — no torso, nothing below her clavicle except a thick knot of spongy flesh to anchor her extra pair of arms. Those arms were five feet long, heavily muscled, bristling with white fur. She put all her weight on one arm and lifted the other into the air, then slammed it down toward Elpida’s skull, piercing the air with claw-tipped fingers.

    Elpida hopped backward on the balls of her feet.

    Training told her that a dodge would create an opening; a lunge like that should leave her opponent overbalanced, open to a grapple, or a punch to the solar plexus, or a kick to the groin.

    But the cannibal’s lower arm did not possess a shoulder to anchor a grapple. She had no solar plexus: no lungs, no diaphragm, no phrenic nerve. And no groin. Elpida hesitated. The half-eaten corpse on the floor of the atrium was a bloody red testament to the power of the cannibal’s arms and claws, the damage she could inflict. Elpida knew she couldn’t just tackle the girl and bounce her head off the floor until she gave up; she’d get her face clawed off. This was more like fighting a Silico construct than a human being — but even the most inhuman Silico creatures still required a circulatory system of some kind. Even the ones that ran off reactors still had to breathe, or take in water.

    Hesitation saved Elpida’s life.

    The four-armed cannibal broke all the rules of human locomotion. She did not overbalance with the missed strike, but followed through: she slammed that hand into the floor to take her weight, then span the other heavy-set lower arm around in a horizontal swipe, aiming to break Elpida’s ribs and pierce her lungs. Elpida ducked back, light-footed — but she almost slammed into the others behind her.

    “You don’t need all that meat, freshie!” the cannibal said. “Gimme!”

    The atrium was large enough for Elpida to dodge around forever. The six silver-grey columns might provide some cover, give her some kind of opening. But the four-armed cannibal was too fast. Elpida was backed against the others, backed against the entrance. She would have to dive to the side, and then the others would be exposed. Ilyusha was still slumped against the pillar where the cannibal had thrown her, dazed or concussed. The others had not turned and ran, too shocked or stunned.

    Greasy light caught the cannibal’s rose-blonde hair, made it dance as she rolled forward, bouncing, loping, laughing.

    Elpida filled her lungs to shout a retreat. She would have to throw herself at the cannibal. She might be able to pin one set of claws, buy time for Ilyusha to get up.

    And then Pira stepped out from behind the nearest column.

    Flame-red hair and cold blue eyes, like sunset in an empty sky. Pira had lost the grey jumpsuit and dressed for combat: a flak jacket with armour plates under the fabric, a protective vest, a tight black under-layer, webbing, and lots of pouches; plain trousers, heavy boots, fingerless gloves, and a visored helmet strapped to her belt. All in black and grey, camouflage for that city-corpse outside. She must have entered the atrium from one of the rear openings and stepped behind a pillar to close the distance. Elpida was impressed.

    Pira held a firearm in both hands, a snarl of black metal tucked tight to her shoulder and pressed to her cheek.

    She took one step into the open, levelled the submachine gun at the cannibal, and squeezed the trigger.

    A storm of bullets flung the cannibal girl sideways, jerking her with impacts of lead in flesh. Pira held the trigger down. The sound was deafening in the atrium. One of the others behind Elpida screamed. Little puffs of blood filled the air as the cannibal staggered under the hail of gunshots.

    But she didn’t fall. Reeling, staggering, her dirty cloak streaming with blood, she endured the bullets until Pira’s gun went click. A dripping red nightmare stood, full of bullets but unbroken, grinning with exhilaration.

    “Haaaaaa!” she howled at Pira, drooling blood. “You’re fast! You get the—”

    Pira ejected the spent magazine. It clattered to the floor. Expert hands plucked another from her webbing, slammed it into the gun, cocked the charging handle, and squeezed the trigger again.

    This time Pira walked forward as she unloaded the gun into the cannibal. Her eyes showed no emotion, only focus. The cannibal jerked and twitched, then went down in a tangle of bleeding limbs.

    Pira’s gun went click a second time.

    The cannibal was still alive. She gurgled, heaving for wet and ruined breath — but how? She had no lungs. Her voice was pulped and broken, but she still grinned.

    “No— Cinney— hey? Hey? You know— Cinney?”

    Pira ignored her, reloaded the gun again, and emptied the entire magazine into the girl’s face. Elpida had to look away from that. The cannibal did not speak again, red and steaming.

    Pira ejected the spent magazine and reloaded the gun a fourth time.

    The others were in shock, panting or silent. Ilyusha was coming round, struggling to sit up, shaking her head. Somebody was sobbing hard — Amina, if Elpida had to guess. But she dared not look back to check.

    In that bloody aftermath, Elpida made a split-second decision: she stepped toward Pira.

    “Hey,” she said, “hey, thank you. Pira, thank you.”

    Loaded and cocked, the gun came up.

    But then Elpida was close enough to reach out and touch the weapon, close enough to catch those empty blue eyes. Pira met her gaze and halted the arc of the gun, flicked the safety on, and stepped back.

    “Thank you,” Elpida repeated. “Pira, thank you.”

    Pira looked her up and down, then stepped away to retrieve her spent magazines, jamming them back into her pouches and webbing. Elpida noted she was carrying more than one weapon: Pira had a sidearm at her hip and a long combat knife strapped to one thigh, as well as several more lumpy bulges inside her flak jacket. A gas mask poked from a pocket. A cannister of faintly glowing blue peeked out from inside her flak jacket, the same colour as the mould-and-radiation blue from back in the resurrection chamber.

    “Excuse me,” Vicky said from the rear of the atrium, voice shaking with adrenaline, tightly controlled. “But I think I speak for all of us when I say what the fuck was any of that? What the fuck was she? What the fuck.”

    Kagami spoke up too, sagging from Vicky’s arm, slick with cold sweat. “I have a better question. Where did you get those guns?”

    “Oh yeah,” Vicky muttered. “I like that question too.”

    Atyle was entranced by the pair of corpses. Her peat-green bionic eye clicked and whirred silently inside the socket. Amina was sobbing, wet and terrified, as Elpida had expected. But the younger girl tore her eyes away from the ruined meat on the floor and staggered over to Ilyusha instead. Shaking, hesitant, still crying, she sank to her knees and tried to help the dazed, stunned cyborg to sit up straight.

    Pira didn’t answer. She was refilling one of the magazines from a pouch of loose bullets in her flak jacket, fingers flicking fast over the rounds. Elpida closed the distance between them and lowered her voice.

    “Thank you, I mean it. I don’t think I could have fought her off. She wasn’t Silico, I can see that. She was a human being. No matter how altered, that was a human being. What was she?”

    Pira answered without looking up. “One of us.”

    “Us. What does that mean? Pira, please. You understand what’s going on here, I don’t. How did you get here so quickly, get so far ahead, get all that gear?”

    “I ran.”

    “But you knew where to go. So did the others from the coffins, the ones who left before we woke up. You all took the exact same route, you’ve been here before.”

    “Each tomb always has the same layout. You learn it. Or not.”

    Vicky raised her voice. She had stepped closer, dragging Kagami with her. “Why did you shoot that girl in the face? You’d already won, she was dying, she … Why’d you do that?”

    Elpida did not like the glassy look in Vicky’s eyes, or the way she was panting. She raised a placating hand toward Vicky, and said, “She would have killed us. I know it’s hard, she was a human being, but she was going to kill us.”

    Kagami snorted. “Human being! Illegal gene-mod quaddie, more like. Meat-fueled clockwork.”

    “Human being,” Elpida repeated, harder. “That’s not Silico. That was a person. And it’s a shame she had to die.”

    “She’s not dead,” said Pira.

    Everyone stared at the red-haired girl, all except Ilyusha and Atyle. Ilyusha was too busy rubbing her own head.

    “Yes,” Atyle said slowly, enraptured by the corpse on the floor. “The artifices of creation will not allow it. They cling to the meat.”

    Vicky gritted her teeth. “She looks pretty fucking dead to me.”

    Pira spoke, cold and empty as she loaded bullets into a magazine. “Wounds like that? No. She’ll be up again in a week on ambient alone. Quicker if she’s got friends nearby to feed her. And she probably has.”

    Elpida could take no refuge in ignorance. Her mind worked too well for that. She soaked up each scrap of information, already three paces ahead, accepting and assimilating. There were others like them; resurrection was not one-time; Pira and probably Ilyusha had done this before; the dead cannibal on the floor was real functioning flesh.

    “What about the other girl?” Vicky asked. “The one she was — eating?”

    “Dead,” Pira said. “Brain’s gone. Too much biomass lost.”

    Elpida had to know. “We saw people out in the streets, moving toward this structure. Do you mean she was the first of them?”

    Pira finally looked up. “From which direction?”

    Elpida’s sense of direction was perfect out in the green, but there was no sun in the smog-suffocated sky, only a vague red patch which grew more indistinct when she looked at it directly. The atrium skylight was useless, the dead black sky told her nothing. Cardinal directions lacked meaning. Instead she pointed with a hand, indicating one side of the atrium wall. “That way.”

    Pira thought for a moment, then finished loading her magazine and slipped it into her webbing. “We were too slow to wake. Carrion eaters are already here.”

    “What about the other three?” Elpida nodded at the other corpse on the floor, the girl the cannibal had been eating. “Was she one of them?”

    Pira was staring at the wall. “Maybe. Other two are already gone. Up first. Probably sabotaged our caskets so they could get a head start, give any early risers a slow-moving meal. You don’t want to run into them.”

    Pira turned away, heading for the rear of the atrium without another word. Elpida realised she was leaving.

    “Hey! Hey, you wait.” Elpida darted around her side, threatening to block her way out. “You’re the only one who understands what’s going on. You wanna leave by yourself, shoot me first.”

    Kagami sighed. “Please don’t.”

    Pira stared back at Elpida. “We’re probably all dead already. Too slow to wake.”

    Behind them, Ilyusha had finally gotten back to her augmented, claw-like feet. She was wincing hard with one side of her face, still in pain. Amina helped her to stand. The younger, pudgy girl seemed terrified of touching Ilyusha’s black-and-red bionic replacements, but she held up her anyway. Amina eyed that thick bionic tail, flinching every time it moved. Ilyusha staggered over to the shattered corpse of the cannibal. Amina really didn’t want to get anywhere near that altered human, but Ilyusha dragged her. When they were close enough, Ilyusha spat on the body.

    Amina allowed Ilyusha to stand unsupported, then surprised everybody by kneeling next to the bullet-riddled corpse and reaching out to gently close what remained of one eyelid.

    “Who was Cinney?” Amina asked in a wavering voice. “She was asking for ‘Cinney’.”

    Pira shrugged. “A lost friend. Some come looking for that every time a tomb opens. Maybe the girl she was eating. Some get like that.”

    Elpida’s mind leapt to keep up. Even her usual breakneck pace of information assimilation was struggling. Pira’s ice-cold eyes had thawed by a single degree, but she was looking at the rear exit from the atrium, still thinking of leaving.

    “That woman had no lungs,” Vicky was saying. “No heart. No stomach. Why was she eating with no stomach? I don’t understand. I don’t. I just don’t.”

    “I know,” Elpida said. “Vicky, don’t think about it. Not yet.”

    Pira muttered: “Good advice.”

    Ilyusha rolled her neck, cracking joints, still fuzzy-eyed. “Saw a grave worm.”

    “Yes,” Pira said. “Dormant stage. Post-partum. Ignore it.”

    “We’re fresh,” Ilyusha said. Then she laughed that terrible lost laugher, teetering on the edge of her own sanity.

    Amina shuddered at the laughter, stood up from the corpse of the cannibal girl, and crossed to the bloody ruin of her victim. That body had no eyes to close. Amina worried at the corner of her jumpsuit cuff with her teeth, then pulled off a long strip of grey and laid it over the corpse’s face. Perhaps Elpida had underestimated the terrified younger girl. Few would show that initiative alone. Amina closed her eyes and began to mutter a prayer over the body. Atyle sighed with derision and turned away from the grave spectacle.

    Elpida wet her lips, surprised to find her mouth had gone dry. Her brain was overheating. “Grave worm. Is that a technical term? What was that thing? I thought it was a mountain at first. And there’s no green, which is impossible—”

    Pira swung her gun up to cover Elpida and the others, flicking the safety off and stepping back.

    “Whoa, whoa, fuck!” Vicky shouted.

    Kagami joined in, bionic feet slipping on the floor as she tried to get her weight under her: “Point that thing elsewhere!”

    Ilyusha pushed herself upright, flexing the naked red claws on one hand, showing Pira her teeth. Her tail lashed the air, stinger smeared with the cannibal’s blood. Amina froze, still down on her knees, the only one outside the potential firing arc. Atyle didn’t seem to care, watching the gun as if she was not looking down the barrel.

    Elpida froze, arms wide, palms open; she locked her gaze on Pira’s centre of gravity. Pira did not have her finger on the trigger. Good discipline.

    Pira backed away another step. Her eyes had frozen over. “I’m gone. Would say good luck, but you’re all—”

    “Coward,” Atyle said. She spoke from the diaphragm, a room-filling voice.

    Elpida took the opening: she strode forward three paces, eyes glued to Pira’s, but she kept that trigger finger in her peripheral vision. Pira pointed the gun at Elpida’s chest.

    “Stop,” Pira said. “You’re dead already.”

    But Elpida was taller, her stride longer, her reach greater. As Pira tried to back up again, Elpida reached out and grabbed the barrel of the gun.

    Pira’s finger slipped onto the trigger. Elpida held the barrel level with her chest and made no attempt to move it away.

    “Let go,” Pira said.

    Elpida knew the red-haired young woman was not going to pull that trigger. She’d seen this kind of behaviour hundreds of times before, in the days when the cadre had all been going through puberty together, though never with a loaded solid-slug firearm. Pira was defensive and avoidant, not switched on for murdering the rest of them. And she’d just intervened to save their lives.

    “I need an explanation,” Elpida said. “You know what’s going on. Explain, or shoot me. You’re not getting out of this room any other way.”

    Pira’s mouth twitched with irritation. “We’re all back from the dead. Welcome to the aftermath. That’s it. I start to explain more and we all sit here for the next three hours while you ask questions. Then we all end up like her.” She jerked her head toward the half-eaten corpse on the floor, the cannibal’s victim. Elpida did not fall for the trick, did not look.

    “We’re back from the dead, yes.” Elpida was surprised by the tremor in her voice. “We’ve been resurrected. What are we supposed to do? What does that mean?”

    “Nothing. It means nothing. We mean nothing. Move or die.”

    “You’ll have to shoot me.” Elpida pressed the barrel against her breastbone. It was not courage.

    Pira scowled. The ice over her expression shattered. “You’re the only one who knows if that means anything.”

    Elpida blinked. “What?”

    “What deal did you make?”

    “Deal? With who?”

    Atyle spoke up again. “One warrior accepts not her death. The other speaks in riddles. Truly we are favoured by the gods with this pair. We will prevail against jesters and clowns alike.”

    Kagami muttered in agreement. “Pair of fucking morons. Badly written NPCs.”

    Vicky spoke up too. “Hey, actually, I agree with Elpida. We need to know what this all is. We’re back from dead, that’s not … that’s not something I can take in stride. Gimme something to work with here. Pira, right? Please. Come on.”

    Pira dropped her voice to a whisper for Elpida alone: “I’m not staying to die. You’ve got a chance if you’re quick. Come with me if you can keep up.” She glanced at Ilyusha. “Her too, maybe. She’s obviously been around before.”

    “Resurrected before, okay. But she’s not all there. PTSD maybe.”

    “Most are.”

    Elpida raised her voice. The others needed to hear. “My answer is the same as back in the resurrection chamber. I’m not leaving anybody behind. At least tell me where you got those weapons. Give us a fighting chance.”

    Pira’s expression iced over again, shuttered and locked. Her finger slid off the trigger and flicked on the safety. Elpida let go of the gun. Pira lowered the barrel and took a slow step backward. She pointed behind one pillar without taking her hands off the weapon.

    “There’s a service lift into the core of the tomb. Armoury, labs, the gravekeeper. If you want a fighting chance, follow me and leave the others behind. If you want the illusion of security, go to the armoury.”

    “Gravekeeper,” said Vicky. “Oh I really wanna meet something here called a ‘gravekeeper’. Cool.”

    Kagami snorted. “Fancy fictional word for a local AI node, probably.” She spoke upward, to the glass ceiling and the greasy light. “Poor writing, father. Pedestrian! I see through all your pretentious nonsense. Just call it a mind or a construct, drop the shitty poetry.”

    Pira ignored that. She spoke to Elpida. “If you want answers, go to the labs and talk to the gravekeeper. But you won’t like the answers. You’ll sit there trying to deal with it, and then you’ll die. Again.” She shook her head. “Every fool has to do this once.”

    Elpida nodded. “Thank you, Pira. You’re sure you won’t come with us? There’s always better safety in numbers. Lone wolves die where the pack survives.”

    Kagami was talking to the air, or to herself. “Okay, alright, find this computer core and see what answer father wants me to hear, then this absurd and vile sim can end.”

    “Guns!” Ilyusha barked, then laughed a nasty little cackle. Amina flinched at the sound.

    Vicky agreed. “Yeah, armoury sounds radical. Let’s do that.”

    “Agreed,” said Elpida. “Pira, how long do we have until this place is overrun?”

    Pira shrugged. “Two, maybe three hours.”

    Atyle strode into Elpida’s field of vision and peered down at the cannibal’s corpse with her bionic eye. She poked the body with a naked foot, uncaring of the blood. “This one was inside already. Your timing is poor.”

    “Four arms,” said Pira. “Good at climbing. There’s always holes.”

    Elpida pressed. “What options do we have? Is a breakout the only way?”

    A sharp sigh from Pira. “It’s not impossible to hide, but I wouldn’t recommend it. They’ll be crawling all over the tomb, stripping it for everything, especially after a grave worm.”

    “Who is ‘they’?”

    “Girls like us. The reluctant dead. Ones who’ve been up longer. Some looking for old friends.” Pira took another two steps back. “I’m gone.”

    “Hey, hey,” Elpida said, hands out, palms up. “Share a weapon. If we run into another like her, I need a weapon.”

    “The service lift is only fifty feet away. Go to the armoury.” Pira’s eyes flicked to Ilyusha. “You’ve been around before. You know these people are dead. Last chance. You coming?”

    Ilyusha’s claws clicked on the metal floor. She placed one taloned foot on the thigh of the bullet-riddled cannibal, leaned forward, and spat at Pira’s feet.

    “Fuck you, reptile!”

    Elpida suppressed a silent sigh of relief.

    Pira said nothing. She backed away until she reached the arch of the corridor, then turned and set off at a jog, submachine gun cradled to her chest.

    “Armoury,” Elpida said. “Let’s move.”

    Kagami snorted. “First thing anybody has said which made any sense.”

    “Yeah,” Vicky agreed. “Let’s go get some fucking guns.”

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