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    The gravekeeper’s chamber: two dozen feet of grey metal pyramid with the top scooped off; a black sphere cradled in that apex, blank and still; the upright coffin with half a girl inside, more wire and tube than flesh and bone.

    Elpida did not see the avatar speak. None of them did, except perhaps Ilyusha. The others were clustered on the laboratory side of the first room, with the corpse and the coffin hidden by the dividing wall. By the time they recovered from the shock of the mechanical pronouncement, the gravekeeper had fallen silent.

    As she stepped through the arch to stand before the pyramid, the sphere, and the corpse-speaker, Elpida obeyed her training. She drew one of the handguns she’d picked up, made sure there was a round in the chamber and the safety was on, then braced it in both hands and pointed the muzzle at the floor. Dry and steady.

    Howl would have snorted. Howl would call her an idiot, poke her in the ribs, and jog her arm on purpose — because there was nothing to shoot. Even if the black sphere really was a Silico mind, there were no constructs for it to command. Elpida watched the corners of the pyramid, the edges of the room, and the curve of the sphere. But nothing moved.

    She did notice one tiny difference — the gently parted lips of the interface corpse.

    Atyle joined Elpida first, unafraid. “The hand-made god speaks, only to deny her divinity. Fitting.”

    Amina crept up beside them, shoulders hunched, her smaller body swamped inside the armoured coat. She was staring at the corpse. “She’s not God. She can’t be.”

    Elpida nodded. “The Silico aren’t gods. They’re just machines.”

    It was an old argument in Telokopolis, an academic debate settled long before Elpida and the cadre had been conceived. Only the oldest library data held anything on machine cults, mostly from around the time of the founding of the city. Nobody took the notion seriously during Elpida’s life, except the Covenanters, at the very end.

    Vicky and Kagami were lagging behind. From the armoury and laboratory room, Vicky said, “Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    Kagami snapped: “Oh shut the fuck up with that.”

    Elpida watched the unmoving eyes of the interface corpse. “Gravekeeper?”

    Kagami hissed, “What did I say?! Was I talking to myself? Don’t fucking speak to it! We’re lucky it didn’t— what? What, am I supposed to wear all that?”

    Vicky said, “You’re the only one still naked. It’s getting weird.”

    “Who cares? It’s not like this is my real body. May as well stay nude.”

    Elpida glanced back. Vicky was pressing some grey underlayers into Kagami’s arms and trying to drape a coat around her shoulders.

    “Look, Kaga,” Vicky said, “if you can’t get this on with your legs, I’ll help. Don’t suffer in silence.”

    Kagami hissed through clenched teeth and accepted the clothes. She clutched the underlayers to her front — and clutched Vicky with her other hand, at the edge of the gravekeeper’s chamber. “Don’t go in there, for fuck’s sake!”

    “Can it hurt us?”


    Elpida turned back to the interface corpse. “It’s not responding.”

    “Good! The last thing we want is attention. The air is compromised, our flesh is compromised. It’s not even ours! You understand? We’re crammed with nanotech, we’re practically made of the stuff. If that thing decides it wants us—”

    Corpse lips widened. Jaw hinged open. Dry tongue flicked inside hollow cheeks.

    “Want and want,” said the gravekeeper’s interface. The voice was mechanical, without affect or inflection. “In wanting we suffer. In wanting we search. In wanting our sorrows revisit without end. We want without end.”

    Nobody dared breathe until the machine was finished.

    Kagami hissed, “Don’t. Say. Anything.”

    Elpida ignored that. She wanted to keep the interface talking. “Gravekeeper, what do you want?”

    The only reply was Kagami stumbling forward and digging her fingernails into Elpida’s elbow. “It’s keying off any random shit that catches its interest. Stop before you get us all crushed to paste with a gravity effector.”

    “I’m holding a firearm, don’t jog my aim.”

    Kagami’s hand whipped back as if burned. Elpida heard Vicky catch her.

    Amina shuffled forward too, surprising Elpida. “Who are you?”

    The machine answered: “Want.”

    “That’s a nice name,” Amina said. Her voice did not seem up to this task, a tiny shiver from a thin chest. Kagami made a strangled sound but Atyle held a hand out to block her from interfering. “What do you do here?”


    Kagami hissed like she wanted to bite somebody. “Fuck, get off! If we’re going to do this, we may as well do it right!” She squirmed out of Vicky’s grip and slapped Atyle’s arm out of the way, then struggled one pace forward on her wobbly augmetics. “Designation?” she barked.

    The corpse replied. “Reignition controller seven-zero-three-eight-four-six-zero-nine-six—”

    The number went on and on.

    “Stop,” Kagami said. The interface stopped. Elpida noticed that Kagami was shaking slightly, even with the coat draped over her shoulders. “There. It’s listening. Tell me you have a plan?”

    Amina asked, “Where is this? Is this your home?”

    “Reignition cradle eighteen.”

    Vicky said, “Where are we? When are we?”

    “Reignition cradle eighteen.”

    Kagami sighed sharply, then said, “Location of this facility. Longitude, latitude.”

    “Latitude: minus sixty seven point seven zero. Longitude: fifty one point fifty one.”

    Kagami looked around with an expression that said: happy now? “Mean anything?”

    Elpida shook her head. Vicky chewed her lip and said, “Never learnt how to navigate with positional stuff.”

    “Wonderful,” Kagami said. “Now we all know exactly where we are, and also jack shit.”

    “What year is this?” Vicky asked, but the interface didn’t respond.

    Elpida said, “It probably needs a reference point from us.” She raised her voice. “How many years since the founding of Telokopolis?”


    Vicky said, “Common era? Any chance of that?”

    “Post-rotation,” Kagami snapped. “Post rotation date format, current day.”

    Still nothing.

    Ilyusha rasped from behind everyone else. “Doesn’t matter.” Elpida turned and saw that the heavily augmented girl had wandered up to the arch at last, loaded down with backpack and shotgun and a pair of machetes. She looked very bored. “Doesn’t care.”

    Atyle said, “How long have you been yourself, Want?”

    Kagami glanced at Atyle with a sharp frown, then said, “Yes, right. If a second is a second, and minute is sixty seconds, and an hour is sixty minutes, how many hours have you been conscious?”

    The gravekeeper said: “Two hundred and sixty two million, eight hundred thousand hours. Approximate.”

    “Approximate!?” Kagami spluttered. “Something this size should not be working with approximates.”

    “Why hours?” Elpida asked. “How long is that?”

    Kagami snorted, but Elpida could see the sweat beading on her forehead. “So you primitives don’t all freak out. And it’s a very long time.”

    “Yeah,” Vicky said. “That’s … long. Right?”

    “I should not be shocked by this,” Kagami said. She glanced at Elpida. She was breathing too hard. “I did find a map, like you asked, and it’s all wrong. It’s too old. We’re too old. This, all this, it’s too old.”

    Atyle asked the interface, “Did you rebirth us, Want? Did you rebuild us? Are you an instrument of the gods?”

    The corpse said, “Instrument and instrumentality, instrumented across the tendons and ligaments of creation. You are wanted.”

    Amina let out a tiny sob. “We’re not wanted.”

    Vicky strode forward so she could reach out and touch the girl’s shoulder. “Hey, sweetie, it’s okay.”

    Kagami hissed. “It doesn’t mean that. It’s keying off random words. We’re not even talking to it, not really.”

    Elpida suppressed the urge to sigh. None of this meant anything, none of it was useful, nothing explained what was going on. Her mind jumped forward three steps and she asked the most important question.

    “Why are we here?”

    The gravekeeper answered: “To live.”

    Vicky laughed. “What the hell does that mean?”

    The black sphere at the top of the pyramid suddenly rippled, as if the surface was liquid disturbed by a stone. Kagami flinched so hard she almost fell over.

    Dry lips widened. “Want is to rekindle and remake always in the form of desire. Desire warps the form and the content. The content is preserved but the form is preserved too. This is suboptimal. Form and content—”

    The voice clacked on, but Amina reached out with one hand. Elpida realised the younger girl was almost crying, clutching her oversized helmet to her chest. “Tell me my sisters lived. Demon, please. Tell me. I’ll give you my soul.”

    Sisters? Elpida’s chest tightened.

    “—broken on the wheel of time and change—”

    “Hey!” Vicky said before the machine had a chance to stop or to answer Amina’s question. “Gravekeeper, Want, whatever you are — did we win? The GLR, the revolution, did we win? You gotta know, right?”

    “—but returned again in fleshless flesh for the task of rekindling—”

    “Shut up!” Kagami snapped, wide-eyed with terror. “Everyone stop talking, it’s getting too excited!”

    “—but without give in affection or loss. But—”

    Ilyusha cackled from behind them all, a lost, mad laugher. “Nobody won! Everybody dies!”

    “—none can be found, none can be saved, all are nothing but memory and mimicry. She must be located, with—”

    Elpida’s mouth was dry. Her hands were clammy on the pistol. She could not resist.

    “Does Telokopolis still stand?”

    The eyes of the interface corpse swivelled to look at her. Another ripple passed across the black sphere. And suddenly there were two voices.

    The dead lips of the interface carried on: “—more than empty shells at the bottom of the sand bucket held by the child with a crown on her brow—”

    But Elpida heard another voice, layered on top, which did not match the movements of the mouth.

    Came down here, did you? I thought you’d go for the guns, soldier. Smart move. There’s too much shit outdoors for you to avoid. You’re going to have to punch through it, but you ain’t got a lotta punch. Wish you could hear me, maybe I’d play mission control. Order you around like a good girl.

    The gravekeeper finished: “—and rings on her fingers. Awaiting confirmation.”

    Elpida answered before anybody else could speak. “I can hear you.”

    The others all looked at her. Kagami’s eyes went wide with alarm. Elpida heard Ilyusha’s claws flick free from her fingertips. Even Atyle was frowning.

    “There’s a data signal in the words,” Elpida said quickly. “I’m hearing two voices overlaid on each other. It must be broadcasting directly to my neural lace.”

    “Oh, shit!” Kagami said. She stumbled backward and into Vicky’s arms. “Somebody shoot her! Now! It’s going to fucking co-opt her stupid cranial uplink!”

    Vicky sighed. “I’m not shooting Elpi. Nobody shoot anybody.”

    Neural lace?” the voice returned. The lips of the interface said: “Seven seals on seven doors and seven marks on seven—” but Elpida filtered it out and focused on the words only she could hear. “The filigree of superconductor wires inside your skull? That’s what you call it? How very primitive. I love it.

    “Yes,” Elpida said. Her arms wanted to twitch the handgun up to cover the black sphere when it rippled again. “Am I talking to the gravekeeper?”

    What time are you from, soldier? The others are practically pre-history, but you’re late, late, late. The hour was late when you were born, let alone when you died.

    “I wasn’t born. I was grown in a uterine replicator.”

    Kagami muttered: “Wouldn’t fucking guess it from your moronic behaviour.”

    “Hush,” Atyle hissed. “She communes.”

    It’s been a long time since anybody had the nerve to talk back to me. But you’re not her.

    “I’m not who?” Elpida asked.

    You’re just some wind-up soldier, another accident smeared too thin across history. The only reason you can hear me is because I’m so close by. As soon as I move on, we’ll lose the signal. What’s the point?

    “Where are you, if you’re not the gravekeeper?”

    Didn’t you see from the window?

    Elpida paused, but there was only one possible answer. “Am I speaking to the grave worm?”

    Kagami was shouting, “Put a bullet in her, now! The intelligence is subverting her! At least take her fucking guns away!” Vicky was saying: “If we’re all made of nanomachines, we’re already subverted, right?” Amina was crying softly. Atyle was mouthing questions for Elpida to ask. Ilyusha strode into the chamber and turned around to watch Elpida’s face.

    And the voice was laughing. “Grave worm? Is that what you poor bitches call this now? Yes, in a manner of speaking. But also no, of course not.

    Elpida’s mind raced, trying to select the right question. Here was an intelligence who understood the shape of the world. Silico mind or not, she needed answers.

    “You started responding to me when I asked about Telokopolis. Why? Does the city still stand?”

    Mmmm.” The voice sounded confused, or in mild pain, or perhaps falling asleep. “She used that name, once. Maybe. I don’t know. It’s been too long.

    “Are you the one who spoke to me in the coffin? ‘Good luck, dead thing’?”

    The voice sounded confused now, as if turning away: “What?” A sigh. “You’re not the one I’m looking for.

    The mechanical voice of the gravekeeper’s interface filtered back in. “—and the grain has all spoiled and the meat is rotten and the flour is full of weevils and evil and—”

    “Grave worm?” Elpida said. “Grave worm? No. She’s gone.”

    “Stop!” Kagami shouted.

    The gravekeeper’s interface stopped talking. The lips closed. But ripples continued to pass over the surface of the black sphere.

    Vicky said, “Elpi? You good?”

    “I’m fine. The broadcast is gone. Do we have any more questions for the—”

    A deep muffled boom reverberated through the walls and floor, through eyeballs and flesh: a detonation somewhere beyond the core of the tomb, perhaps beyond the exterior of the pyramid. Amina went stiff and terrified. Atyle frowned. Vicky flinched. Ilyusha looked up like she’d heard the call of her own gods.

    A standing wave passed over the surface of the black sphere, in the direction of the distant explosion.

    Kagami whispered: “Everyone back out, slowly. I don’t care what you heard, you tin can cyborg psycho bitch. Back out of the room. Now.”

    “Agreed,” Elpida whispered.

    Nobody stayed in the gravekeeper’s chamber. Ilyusha swung her tail at the interface as they left, but the corpse did not react. As soon as they were clear of the arch and back in the laboratory space, Vicky let out a big sigh, Elpida holstered her sidearm, and Kagami collapsed into a chair. Amina was busy sniffing and wiping her eyes, trying not to cry.

    Vicky asked, “You think that explosion was the others, outside? The ones Pira was talking about?”

    Elpida nodded. “We saw them fighting each other.”

    Kagami laughed with bitter humour. “Fighting over who gets the best cuts of fresh meat. By which I mean us, in case you’re not following. We’re a fresh source of nanomachinery. This whole tomb is.” She glared at Ilyusha. “That blue crap in your bag, it’s nanomachine soup, isn’t it?”

    Ilyusha snorted with amusement. “Kah!”

    Elpida looked down the length of the room, at the lift. “The lift doors up top are manual and armoured, and I didn’t see a recall button. Nobody can use it to join us. We’re safe down here for the moment.” She knew that wasn’t strictly true; the doors could be cracked with a shaped charge and the lift shaft could be scaled with the right equipment. But the others needed the morale boost. Amina was crying softly, Kagami was slumped in the chair, and Vicky was on edge, ready for combat. “We don’t want to get cornered, so we can’t stay here, but Pira did say we have a couple of hours.”

    “You trust her?” Vicky asked.


    Atyle was staring back through the arch, at the black sphere. “A mad god. A machine god?”

    “There was another voice,” Elpida said. She related the conversation to the others in as much detail as she could.

    “Weird,” said Vicky.

    Kagami slapped the table next to the computers. The screens still showed the tiny blue nanomachines on the microscope slides, wiggling and writhing. “You have no idea what you heard or didn’t! You haven’t listened to a word I’ve said. That thing in there could imitate anything. We were speaking with a sub-routine of a sub-routine. The main ego is probably off in some twelve dimensional hypermath simulation, getting its jollies from rotating billion-sided shapes. It doesn’t care! Some part of it cracked into your neuro-implants and reflected your own mind back at you. You’re lucky you’re not a quivering ball of pulp on the floor! We’re nanomachinery! You understand? It could melt you!”

    Elpida shook her head. “It recognised the name Telokopolis.”

    Kagami threw up her arms and then slumped, face in her hands, naked beneath her coat.

    Vicky cleared her throat. “I don’t feel like a robot. I feel like me. Better than me.” She paused. “Kaga, is that why you were trying to cut off one of your fingers?”

    Kagami spoke into her hands. “I’m pretty sure I could stick it back on with spit and willpower.”

    “Do we have to stay here?” Amina said. Elpida turned and found the younger girl was holding onto a corner of Elpida’s armoured coat. She gently placed a hand on Amina’s head, on the dark, fine hair over her scalp, and turned back to Kagami.

    “You mentioned a map?”

    “Fuck me,” Kagami said. “You never stop, do you? Does anything slow you down?”

    “I was designed and trained to keep going, whatever the circumstances. So, no.”

    Vicky said, “Hey, I know we’re not voting or anything, but I like that quality. I’ve already stopped freaking out. Come on, Kaga, you found a map?”

    Kagami sagged in the chair, staring at the floor. Her voice came out dead: “What’s the point? We’re not real. We’re nanomachine simulacra. These are not our original bodies. Probably not our original minds, either.”

    “Does that matter?” Elpida asked. “I’m conscious, I’m thinking, I exist. That matters.”

    “Cogito ergo sum, huh?” Kagami snorted.

    Vicky agreed: “Feels pretty real to be here. Even if I am a copy. Whatever, you know?” She glanced at Atyle. “Do you even get this?”

    “Yes,” Atyle said, unimpressed.

    “Okay, cool.”

    Elpida raised her voice. “We can debate philosophy and consciousness when we’re out of here and somewhere safe.”

    Kagami shot upright in her chair, eyes red and wet. “There is nowhere safe! You all saw what was through those windows. That’s the world. There’s nowhere to go.”

    Vicky forced a laugh. “You sound like Pira.”

    Elpida stepped forward and took Kagami’s shoulder; she could tell the doll-like young woman was on the verge of a breakdown. Cold sweat plastered long black hair to Kagami’s forehead. Her skin had gone waxy. She needed more than orders.

    “Telokopolis still stands,” Elpida said. “And it stands for every human being. Even ones rebuilt by Silico, even ones lost in time.” The Covenanters would disagree, but Elpida rejected them; her city did not belong to the people who had killed her. She cracked a smile, the kind of smile she’d once used on Howl. “Even ones who tried to have me shot just now.”

    “I was panicking!” Kagami snapped — but she’d come back down from the precipice. “Justifiably.”

    Elpida nodded. “Kagami, please show us the map.”

    Kagami huffed and rolled her eyes, but she shrugged out of Elpida’s grip and turned the chair toward the computer screens. She tapped at the keyboard with one hand, using her other to clutch the grey underlayers to her naked front. The microscope readouts vanished and a new window opened on the largest of the screens.

    “There,” Kagami said, leaning back. “That’s the best resolution I can get. The number in the corner isn’t latency, it’s the time passed since the satellite data was taken. Buffer overflow, completely broken. This could be literally years out of date. Decades, I would guess.”

    Atyle said: “What am I looking at?”


    The image on the screen was all blacks and greys, carbonised and scorched, punctuated by streaks of red-brown rust and stretches of darkly bubbling rot. To Elpida it looked like an island, a giant version of one of the artificial environments in the buried fields below Telokopolis. But this island was gigantic, crossed by mountain ranges, riven by deep chasms; one side of it was crusted with a film of darker grey and black. Here and there she spotted a few structures large enough to make out from this far up: a broken line of off-white, a curve of shattered ring, a deep-buried glint of tarnished copper. The water around that island was black as tar.

    Vicky spoke, hesitantly. “Is this … real colour?”

    Kagami nodded. “Far as I can tell. The satellite data is old, but clean.”

    “Satellite?” Elpida muttered. She knew the word in an abstract sense.

    “Yes, satellite data,” said Kagami. “When the hell are you from? You don’t know what a satellite is? Machine in orbit, takes pictures of the surface. This is Earth, from high up.”

    Atyle said, “Earth? The ground? You speak nonsense, worse than myself when I was a liar and a fraud. We are looking at a rotten fruit.”

    Amina spoke up too. “I don’t understand.”

    Kagami sighed sharply. “Yes, the primitives don’t even understand a globe. I’m not going to sit here and—”

    Ilyusha had been lurking quietly behind the group, craning up for a look at the screen, not really interested. But now she shouldered past Elpida too fast to be stopped. She grabbed the back of Kagami’s chair and yanked her sideways. Red claws went shick out of her fingertips. Spike-tipped tail whipped upward.

    “Stop calling people that!” she shouted into Kagami’s face. “I’ll take your head off, reptile!”

    Kagami was so afraid she couldn’t speak, just cowering and staring, open-mouthed. Vicky and Elpida worked together to gently but firmly peel Ilyusha off the chair, but she wouldn’t move. She growled.

    Atyle said, “I do not require an animal to defend my honour.”

    That got Ilyusha to move. She ripped away, spat at Atyle’s feet, and then stomped off, clicking over to the armoury.

    Kagami was white as a sheet, quivering all over, clutching herself. Vicky squeezed her shoulder.

    “Everyone take a deep breath,” said Elpida.

    “A ball,” Kagami stammered, holding up a fist. “The Earth, that’s our planet, where we are right now. It’s a ball hanging in space. The Earth goes around the sun in a big circle. That’s … that’s it. But it’s not meant to look like that. Obviously.”

    “Thank you,” said Amina, very softly.

    Kagami stared at her, wide-eyed with lingering shock. Amina broke away from the group and hurried over to Ilyusha. Elpida watched them for a moment to make sure nothing bad was about to happen. Ilyusha turned a cold shoulder, but then Amina said something quiet and soft, and Ilyusha allowed her to get closer. The bionic tail drooped. Elpida nodded to herself — they’d be alright.

    Vicky was saying: “But that’s a super-continent.”

    “Yes,” said Kagami.

    “How far in the future are we?”

    Kagami sighed. “Several hundred million years, I would guess.” She pointed at the screens. “That line of mountains, you see that? That’s the coastline of the Americas smashing into Africa, very slowly.” Kagami glanced up at Vicky. “Americas. I assume you and I are close enough in time that we’re both using that word?”

    Vicky said, “Sure. I mean, I did live there.”

    Kagami looked at Elpida and Atyle. Elpida shook her head; she recognised neither of those place names. Atyle said nothing.

    The image on the screen made no sense to Elpida. There was no green. How could this charred ball of tar and carbon be the planet Earth? She traced the mountains, then the vast city — the darker crust must be buildings — then the places where land met water, around the edge of the giant island.

    Like a magic-eye picture, the image suddenly made perfect sense. She reached out and pointed at part of the screen, at an iron-grey smudge which might be nothing, but might be a spire.

    “Telokopolis is there.”

    Kagami and Vicky looked at her with confused shock. Atyle raised her eyebrows.

    “That’s the plateau,” Elpida said. “That’s where the city stands. Can we zoom the image?”

    “No,” Kagami said. “The resolution is terrible and this is all we have.” She squinted at the screen. “Could be something there, who knows. Arcologies are sometimes visible from orbit with the naked eye, if they’re big enough.”

    “Elpi,” said Vicky. “How many people lived in your city, in Telokopolis?”

    “Last census was about nine hundred million.”

    Kagami and Vicky shared a look. Kagami said, “Definitely visible from space.” She laughed, a sad sound. “Could be a spire-city, could be an open chalk pit. Resolution is shit.” She eyed Elpida. “How can you be so sure? The landmasses are barely recognisable.”

    “This,” Elpida said, drawing her finger in a ring around the island. “The places where land meets water. It’s the drop-off, in the green. I recognise the drop-off line, but there’s no vegetation. That threw me off for a moment.”

    Nobody seemed to know what she meant.

    “The drop-off,” Elpida explained. “Where the green gets exponentially deeper. The plants follow the landscape down but the canopy stays at the same level. The Silico live down there in huge numbers. There’s no sunlight. Gets weirder the deeper you go. But now there’s water instead.”


    “You mean … ” Vicky said eventually. “You mean the coastline?”


    “The sea. Coast. Seas. You have the sea, right?”

    “Sea?” Elpida echoed. “That’s what it looks like? I’ve seen old pictures, but nothing like this.”

    Kagami was squinting at her. “Your time had no seas, yet was drowned in vegetation?” She snorted. “This moron lived her whole life in a sim.”

    Elpida bristled in a way she’d never experienced before. “Telokopolis is real. My cadre is real.”

    Was real. Elpida ached inside.

    Kagami blanched and raised her hands. Elpida took a deep breath.

    “Ease down, girl,” Vicky said.

    “Kagami,” Elpida said, much calmer. “Does this map indicate where we are?”

    “Here,” Kagami said, reaching forward to tap somewhere on the far east of the world-island. Then she gestured down the lab, at the equipment lying on the tables, the hand-held devices and scanners and readout screens. “Some of this stuff is positional, I recognise a bit of it. Auspex equipment, portable comms, hand-held radar and sonar. It’s no GPS — I doubt there’s any sats still flying anyway — but some of it could point us in the right direction, if we’re going to step out there with a plan to last more than five seconds before somebody eats us.”

    “To Telokopolis.”

    Kagami sighed. “Always good to have a goal.”

    Elpida then said, out loud: “Or toward the grave worm. It’s closer.”

    Everyone looked at her. On the other side of the room, Ilyusha cackled.

    “You can’t be serious,” Vicky said. “You saw the size of that thing.”

    “That voice understood the name of the city. I think that’s worth following up. And we still need real answers.”

    “We do,” said Kagami. “Hell, why not? We’re all going to die the moment we step outside. I vote for the worm.”

    “We’re not going to die,” Elpida said.

    Atyle said, “I do not vote.”

    “Worm!” Ilyusha yelled. She grabbed Amina around the shoulders and rubbed her head, messing up her hair. Amina squeaked.

    Elpida held up a hand. “We can vote when—”

    A second low boom passed through the core of the tomb, still distant but much closer. Everyone paused and looked up. Ilyusha grinned.

    Elpida took charge. “Wherever we’re going, we need to get out of here first. Kagami, get those clothes on. Everyone else, grab what you can carry. Vicky, help Amina with a ballistic shield. Atyle, I’m going to show you how a gun works, you need to be armed. Ilyusha, where did you get that backpack?”

    Amina and Vicky together had to help Kagami get her clothes on; her augmetic legs might work well enough to walk a few steps now, but she couldn’t contort herself into a pair of trousers. She made an awful fuss of it. Elpida showed Atyle how to work a handgun. The tall noblewoman accepted a sidearm, but she left the thing in her coat pocket with an air of disdain. Elpida filled a backpack and her own pouches with spare ammo.

    Once Kagami was dressed and weighed down with a coat, she set about gathering up auspex equipment. She shoved most of it into a bag and strapped a screen device to her forearm, then slipped a transparent visor headpiece over her eyes, blinking and flicking her eyelids.

    “Get those.” Kagami pointed at the tray of palm-sized metal cylinders which Elpida had noticed earlier. “Give me those. Put them in a pouch or something.”

    When Vicky handed the six shiny oblongs to her, Kagami cradled them like gemstones, peering closely at their blank surfaces. Then she slipped them into a coat pocket.

    “What kind of weapons are those?” Elpida asked.

    “Smart drones. Onboard AI. No way to boot them, let alone power them, but if I can find a way then we’ll be invincible. No sense leaving them here.”

    Elpida nodded along with this, then turned away to grab one of the coilguns. The magnetic weapons were too heavy to carry far, but worth the weight if Elpida had to punch a hole through a ring of predators outside. She would need to keep herself and Vicky up front, and Amina well-sheltered — the younger girl was most likely to break and run, or freeze up, or panic. Kagami needed support: Atyle could manage that if she wouldn’t deign to hold a gun properly. Ilyusha was a wild-card.

    But before Elpida could reach the coilguns, a metallic tearing sound echoed from the lift, followed by a rapid mechanical click-click-click of steel on steel.

    Up in the corridor where they’d entered the lift, something had torn open the armoured doors.

    Something was walking down the lift shaft, on many more than two legs.

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