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    Pointing a gun and making a threat was easy, even if that gun weighed fifty kilograms and required a stabilisation rig strapped around the user’s hips. Pulling the trigger would be easy too; Elpida’s mind had already calculated the firefight which would ensue, and she knew it would not be much of a fight. One round from the coilgun would slam a plate-sized hole through the middle of Lianna’s bionic spider body. The same round, angled correctly, would also catch Inaya — the crumpled, shrunken, metal-encrusted woman riding on Lianna’s back — and smear her across the wall.

    Zeltzin — the red-clad swordswoman whose face was concealed behind a black ballistic mask — might be hiding any variety of augmentations beneath her red bodysuit and loose robes. Elpida did not like the way the woman moved, doubled-joined and loose. But she wouldn’t live through Vicky and Ilyusha opening fire, not this close.

    They could win, quickly and cleanly. But Elpida didn’t want to pull the trigger.

    The spire-cell back in Telokopolis felt like only yesterday. She had died, yesterday. Howl had slept in her arms three days ago — three hundred million years ago. Howl would have pulled the trigger to protect the cadre, damn the consequences. And that was why Howl had not been in command.

    Elpida’s hands were steady on the coilgun. Zeltzin was saying: “Lead you to the gates of the tomb? You don’t even know what you’re asking for, freshie. Better to stay here and take the loss, make the decision over again, down in the black rain and—”

    “You’re going to lead us out,” Elpida said.

    From up on the spider-girl’s back, Inaya spoke for her trio, wheezy and rasping: “Let them follow, Zeltzin. Seeds fall where they may, on stone as well as soil.”

    “Thank you,” said Elpida.

    Logistics was the hard part: organising an extraction, making sure everybody was ready, all while holding this trio at gunpoint, and making sure the situation did not erupt into an unintentional execution. This wasn’t the kind of operation the cadre had trained for.

    Elpida kept the coilgun pointed at Lianna — the spider-centaur — while calling out orders. She had Amina fetch Ilyusha’s backpack from the gravekeeper’s chamber: the backpack full of shotgun shells and cannisters of blue nanomachine slime. She instructed Atyle to grab more backpacks and fill them with whatever she could.

    “Kagami, supervise,” she added.

    “What? Supervise what? Putting things in bags?”

    Atyle started to say: “I will not be herded and—” But Elpida spoke over her.

    “Because you’re free and you understand what you’re looking at, but you can’t move quickly on those legs. Atyle and Amina don’t understand; Atyle, there’s no shame in that, just do it. We need survival equipment. See if there’s any MREs, bottles for water, compact tents. Things like that. Quickly now.”

    Zeltzin snorted behind her featureless black mask. “Fresh and clueless.”

    Ilyusha laughed. “Shut up, bitch-sticks!”

    Elpida said, “Explain.”

    “There’s only one kind of food in a tomb.”

    Kagami spat, “Told you they were here to fucking eat us.”

    Vicky and Ilyusha couldn’t help; they had to keep their weapons pointed at the red-clad swordswoman. But that was a distraction, no matter how steady Vicky’s hands or how much Ilyusha cackled and barked. The coilgun was their ace; without that, the trio of intruders could retreat at their leisure, behind Lianna’s bullet-proof armour plates. Elpida could not allow her aim or her attention to waver.

    Lianna made it easy. The spider-woman kept her armour plates and pincer-blades lowered and out of the way. Her human upper half raised her hands and wore a comedic grimace. Inaya, riding on her back in a nest of blankets, blinded by the coral-reef of bionics on her face, regarded all this with a craggy frown.

    She said: “The star is getting ready to fall. You cannot mean to hold us here for long. I will not allow this, I will not. You may follow, but we must hurry. Zeltzin, they must move!”

    Zeltzin said, “Boss, they have a coilgun. We don’t have a choice. We made a bad gamble.”

    Inaya’s blind, metal-encrusted gaze wavered down to Zeltzin, then returned to staring at the ceiling. “I cannot allow … cannot … we cannot miss the falling star. Not again. Lianna, I have seen you at your best, at your peak, you are still there, can you not—”

    “Guns!” Lianna squeaked. “Big-big gun! No-no.”

    “You,” Zeltzin snapped. “White-hair. Leader.”

    “Commander,” Elpida said. “You address me as Commander.”

    Commander, Howl snorted in her memory. You like that, Elps?

    The Legion expects us to have a hierarchy. You don’t have to use it in private. Howl, you follow my orders anyway, even when you argue. What’s the problem?

    I follow you, not your orders.

    The rank was a lie, the authority was a lie; Howl was dead along with the rest of the cadre; Commander Elpida had not been able to protect anybody at the end. The word tasted like poison. But it was a useful tool.

    Zeltzin was saying: “My boss has a point. The longer we wait the worse it will be. You can’t expect us to lead you to the gates of the tomb and then kill us anyway, you—”

    A muffled boom reverberated through the armoury and laboratory, a distant explosion beyond the tomb.

    Vicky said, voice quivering: “Third time we’ve heard one of those. What the hell is going on out there?”

    Inaya answered, dreamy and drifting. “Animals at a watering hole.”

    “What does that mean?” Vicky said. “Hey, what does that mean?”

    Kagami laughed bitterly and broke off from helping Atyle. “It means we’re the only food around and all the monsters are fighting over us.”

    Lianna giggled and said, “Yum-yum!”

    Elpida said: “You lead us to the way out and then we’ll let you go. Nobody has to die. You have my word.”

    Lianna’s goofy grimace got worse. Zeltzin stared from behind her mask. Inaya said nothing, eyes on her falling star.

    Vicky was breathing too heavily. Elpida didn’t dare take her hands off the coilgun receiver, but she spoke without moving her eyes. “Vicky, don’t look at me. Keep Zeltzin covered. You’re doing great.”

    “If … ” Vicky said. Elpida heard a dry swallow. “If you— thanks.”

    “You’re doing great. Keep her covered. If she moves toward me, shoot her.”

    “Got it. Right. Got it.”

    “Ha!” Ilyusha barked. “Stupid bitch fuck. Sword bullshit. Fuck you.”

    Zeltzin stayed perfectly still, but Elpida saw motion behind her eye-slits. “I would win a duel,” she said. “You know that.”

    Ilyusha stuck her tongue out and laughed. She clicked her claws against the rotary shotgun. “And I’ve got a gun!”

    Zeltzin said, “Toss it and see what happens.”

    From up on Lianna’s back, Inaya sighed. “Zeltzin, pride.”

    Lianna giggled. “Yeah, Zel!”

    Elpida said, “I can’t control Ilyusha. If she thinks you’re assaulting me, she’ll engage without hesitation. I wouldn’t irritate her if I were you.”

    Ilyusha barked, “Yeah, don’t piss me off, cunt-face!”

    Her tail was wagging. Elpida wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or a bad one.

    The search for supplies was a waste of time; the armoury racks did not contain any MREs, sleeping bags, flashlights, bottles of water, or other survival equipment. Kagami and Atyle found some emergency thermal blankets made of heat-reflective plastic, but that was all. They crammed those into a backpack along with several spare coats and as many grey underlayers as they could fit. A second backpack was filled with ammunition and a few extra side-arms. At Elpida’s instruction they strapped a ballistic shield to Vicky’s back so she didn’t have to look away from their hostages.

    Ilyusha laughed at that. “Tortoise!”

    Vicky took it well. “I’ve been called worse.”

    “Good tortoise.”

    Getting into the lift was the moment of most danger. Elpida said it out loud, to Zeltzin’s blank mask.

    “If they’re going to try to overwhelm us, they’ll do it in the lift, when one of us is distracted or looks away. If they’re smart, they will have left a fourth member of their group at the top of the lift shaft. Be prepared for that.”

    Zeltzin said: “Only what you see here.”

    Elpida ignored that. She had been watching for covert hand signals or coded communication between the trio; if she and the cadre had been held at gunpoint, that’s what they would have done: set up a reverse surprise, get ready to overpower their captors, make certain everybody knew their roles for when an opening presented itself. But this strange trio from a dead world weren’t doing any of that, unless they were all communicating via neural lace. The conversation with the grave worm made Elpida doubt that.

    “Vicky,” she carried on, “you stay glued on Zeltzin, whatever happens. Kagami, cover her too, if you can. Safety off. Atyle, don’t lag behind. Amina, you stay in the rear, you stay behind me. Understand?”

    Amina squeaked an affirmative — but she stayed behind Ilyusha, not Elpida. That was good enough.

    Elpida allowed Lianna to back into the lift. All that bionic muscle and plate was quite impressive to see in motion. Zeltzin followed, slowly, covered by Vicky and Ilyusha. Amina hurried after them, then Atyle ambled inside, head held high, a backpack over one shoulder. Kagami wobbled and stumbled, but she got there, leaning against the inside of the lift. Elpida waited until all the others had gone first, so as not to foul her aim.

    First in, last out; Elpida wasn’t going to let anybody die before her, not this time.

    When she stepped over the threshold of the lift, a cold and mechanical voice spoke from the depths of the tomb.

    “Want not,” said the gravekeeper’s interface corpse.

    The others flinched, turned to look, craned their necks, broke their concentration. Even Vicky jerked with surprise, though she held her aim. But Elpida stayed steady, coilgun levelled. Zeltzin and Inaya and Lianna stared too. This was no trick.

    The gravekeeper did not speak on.

    Zeltzin said: “I hate it when the gods do that.”

    “It’s not God,” Amina said. “It’s sad.” But Zeltzin didn’t look at her.

    Inside the lift, Elpida kept a safe distance from Lianna’s spider-body. The floor of the lift was covered with scraps and twists of torn metal from where Lianna had punched through the roof; the ceiling was a gaping hole showing the dark of the lift shaft. She had Atyle close the lift doors and told Amina to press the button for ‘up’. A little red light came on inside the panel and the lift began to rise. It seemed much slower going up.

    The two groups stared at each other across a few feet of metal floor and shredded debris. Ilyusha kept shifting her clawed feet back and forth, clicking and scraping. Inaya’s breathing was laboured and rough. Lianna kept that cringing grin plastered across her face.

    Elpida said, “Everybody just take a deep breath. We’re not going to fight. Take us to the way out and you can leave.”

    Zeltzin made a show of taking that deep breath. Inaya wasn’t paying attention; she appeared to have fallen into a doze, staring upward. Lianna said: “What’cha gonna do at the doors, fresh-fresh?”

    Atyle spoke from behind Elpida, voice filled with admiration: “Lianna. You are a thing of exquisite beauty, spider.”

    Lianna’s face lit up. “Thank you! Sweet-sweets! Name?”

    “Atyle. Would that I could come with you, but I would not willingly step into a web, even for beauty.”

    Lianna giggled. “Smart one!”

    “Why—” Amina started, then hesitated, then carried on. “Miss, why are you a giant spider?”

    “Because it’s cool! Fun-fun! Sexy! Why are you so small and weak? Wanna get gobbled up?”

    Ilyusha stamped forward with one clawed foot. “Off, bitch!”

    Lianna giggled again.

    “Easy now,” said Elpida. “Nobody is eating anybody.”

    Elpida approved of the banter. The more they talked the more difficult it would be for either side to pull the trigger. She wasn’t lying about letting the strange trio go unharmed. Once they reached the entrance, they were welcome to go their own way. From what she’d seen so far — Pira, the cannibal, this trio — mutual respect and mercy were not common currency in this dead world.

    But Elpida wasn’t from here. She was from Telokopolis.

    Vicky hissed her name: “Elpi.”


    “Can I ask them a question?”

    “Go ahead. Keep Zeltzin covered.”

    Vicky raised her voice, “When are you all from?”

    Inaya’s blind face rotated down to her. “When?”

    “Yeah,” Vicky said. “Time and place. Where’d you come from?”

    “The cradle of the gods,” Inaya answered, and then looked upward again, conversation over.

    Zeltzin’s answer was muffled by her mask: “We all came from the black and the rain and to the black and the rain we will return. All else is illusion and sunbeams. There was nothing before this.”

    Lianna laughed like her companions were joking. She said, “I’m from a hole in the ground!”

    Elpida could not see Vicky’s response, but she could hear her swallow. Those were not the kinds of answers she had wanted.

    Four minutes and thirty-six seconds. Elpida counted. The ride up was longer than the descent.

    The doors at the top of the lift shaft hung from their hinges, ripped open when Lianna had entered. Elpida made the trio exit first, then ordered her forward group, then she followed last, stepping out of the lift and into the raised antechamber which overlooked the single corridor that led back to the atrium.

    Muffled sounds of combat were unmistakable now, coming from somewhere beyond the walls: gunfire, sometimes sporadic, occasionally sustained; rare explosions, small and contained; voices, shouting and laughing, some of them not quite right for human throats, words impossible to make out. But Silico didn’t speak. Silico didn’t laugh. Those were human beings out there — other revenants.

    Elpida’s hands were sticky on the coilgun grips but the assist-rig took most of the weight. She kept the weapon levelled at Lianna while the others clustered around her.

    Zeltzin asked: “What now, Commander?”

    Vicky said, “Yeah Elpi, what’s the plan?”

    Elpida explained. “You three are going to take the lead, up front. We’re going to follow behind. Take us to the exit.”

    Zeltzin snorted. “Front gate’s going to be swarming by the time we get there.”

    Ilyusha cackled and made her shotgun go clack. “Good!”

    Kagami hissed under her breath, sagging in Elpida’s peripheral vision, struggling to make her knees lock. “No, actually, not good. Come on, Commander.” Her voice dripped with sarcasm. “We need more than that. Tell me you know what you’re doing, tell me you’re not just making it up as you go along. Fucking hell.”

    Vicky said, “I trust Elpi. She’s gotten us this far.”

    Kagami spat, “We’re chicks barely out of our shells, moron!”

    Elpida spoke with confidence: “Zeltzin, how long do we have before the tomb is overrun? I was led to believe we had a couple of hours.”

    Zeltzin answered. “It’ll take an hour just to walk to the front gate, at your speed.”

    “Our speed?”

    Lianna giggled. “I’m fast as fuck!”

    Zeltzin said, “We rode her here. You won’t all fit.”

    Inaya was still staring at the ceiling. “The star is unlatching. I feel it preparing, readying for the journey, burning fuel in awakening. Zeltzin, we must witness it. We must see where it falls.”

    Elpida said, “Lianna here is a source of intimidation. We’re going let this trio go out the front doors first, then we follow. Anything tries to stop us, we punch through with the coilgun. It’s a big enough threat to buy us breathing room. We cross the cleared ground between the base of the pyramid and the ruins as quickly and as directly as possible. I’ll get us clear.”

    Lies, but good for morale.

    Elpida couldn’t make a plan until she knew what the front entrance was like, or what lay beyond it; from the window they’d seen earlier, the base of the pyramid was a jumble of overlapping walls, bridges, and choke-points. She needed to know exactly what she was stepping into. She could ask Zeltzin, but she was confident that Zeltzin would lie. Specific plans had to wait until she had more information.

    She could think and react fast enough to make that work, but she needed the others to stay together and stay calm. She needed them to follow her orders.

    Elpida stared at the eye-slits of Zeltzin’s mask. She asked, “You’ve seen the entrance to the tomb. What do you think of that plan?”

    Zeltzin shrugged. The gesture didn’t look right; too many bones moved in her shoulders. “You might make it.”

    Elpida decided that was a lie. Zeltzin knew she was bluffing.

    “Cool,” said Vicky. Her voice betrayed her nerves. “Cool. We can do this. We can do it. Elpi, I trust you, just tell us what to do.”

    Kagami said, “What’s it like out there?” Her voice lacked its usual acid.

    “Like black rain,” Zeltzin said. “But forever and ever.”

    “Cut the poetry,” Kagami spat. “What is it like, you overdressed peacock?”

    Elpida raised her voice before Kagami could spook herself further. “Follow my orders and we’ll be fine. I will get us out of this and I will not forget any of you, I will not leave you behind. Let these three go first, let them lead. Stick close but let them stay in front. Eyes peeled, tell me if you see anything. If you fall behind, call out. Amina, I need you to help Kagami walk. Kagami, just accept it.”

    Amina squeaked. “Y-yes!”

    Kagami sighed. “Fine. Put your shoulder here, your hand there— no, there. Like that. Yes. Hold steady, you— you— nun.”

    Ilyusha snorted. Elpida couldn’t see the exchange, but she approved of the result.

    “Everybody ready to move?” Elpida received a muttered round of affirmatives. She nodded to Zeltzin and Lianna. “Lead on.”

    Lianna flashed her teeth, winked broadly, and then turned around, scuttling on eight massive bionic legs. She trotted off with Inaya hunkered down on her back, descending the ramp into the corridor which led back toward the atrium.

    Zeltzin lingered, eyes hidden behind her mask.

    “The star isn’t falling for nothing,” she said. “Inaya won’t say so, but it will be bad. You’d be better off trying again. Turn those guns on yourselves, go back into the black rain, make the decision over, sleep or rebirth.”

    Ilyusha jerked her shotgun forward. “Shut the fuck up!”

    Elpida said, “Don’t tell my cadre to hurt themselves. Lead on, now.”

    Zeltzin sighed, then turned and followed the giant spider-woman. Elpida led the others forward, coilgun raised. Her arms were growing tired.

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