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    A maze of grey metal corridors, punctuated by abandoned rooms, empty niches, and broken medical equipment; steep stairs with matching metal handrails, the stairways divided in two, with helpful yellow arrows on the floor to indicate which side was for going up and which was for going down; semi-circles of uncomfortable chairs, the fossils of forgotten meetings; atria with glass ceilings looking out on the dead sky, reception desks with broken computer terminals, locker rooms with nothing left inside. Every surface was perfectly free of dust, spotless and clean.

    There was no trail to follow. If Pira had passed this way then she had left nothing behind.

    The lower floors of the tomb pyramid were undeniably human, but they were just as impossible to navigate as the top floors. They lacked the seamless surfaces, the capillary tunnels, and the rooms full of inexplicable machinery, but the same logic lay just beneath the skin of this man-made environment.

    Elpida ignored the implications of that. She kept her mind on the task: she kept the coilgun pointed at Lianna’s spider-abdomen rear.

    Without their guides-slash-hostages, Elpida’s group could have wandered each floor for hours before locating the stairs down. The tomb lacked a central stairwell or a main bank of lifts, which made no sense to Elpida. Telokopolis was in many ways a vertical society; the body of the city was riddled with lift platforms, inter-floor railways, and foot-traffic access tunnels, on every scale from private one-person chutes to the tens of millions who moved through the public systems every day. Elpida had internalised the city’s geographical logic.

    Old Lady Nunnus had once explained to her: We’re too used to verticality. Any child of the city always has in mind what is above and below oneself. Half the Legion recruits suffer agoraphobia and panic attacks the first time they step out onto the plateau. We’ve become like fish, we don’t know water is wet. You girls are no exception, you’ll become acclimated to it regardless, your subconscious minds will expect up and down to work in certain ways. But none of that will apply out in the green.

    Elpida had spent months on end in the green. She thought she knew water was wet. But the layout of the tomb offended her; it wasn’t human, it was just pretending, and it kept almost fooling her.

    Lianna — the giant spider-centaur — was human, whatever she looked like; Elpida realised very early that the spider-woman did not understand the tomb either. She was merely retracing her own steps from stairway to stairway, through the jumble of corridors and rooms, and she was having some difficulty. More than once she had to pause, her eight armoured bionic legs tipping and tapping in place, as she peered down the grey metal corridors.

    The first time this happened, Elpida ordered her group to halt as well. She tried to ensure at least eight feet of clearance between them and Lianna’s rear, but that didn’t go as planned: Atyle kept wandering forward, and Ilyusha wouldn’t stay in place.

    Elpida called out: “What’s the hold up?”

    Ilyusha barked, “Spidey’s fuckin’ stuck!”

    Lianna grumbled under her breath. Zeltzin reached out with one red-gloved hand and patted the spider-girl’s flank. “Boss,” she said.

    Inaya stirred within her blanket nest up on Lianna’s back and dragged her eyes down from the ceiling. She grunted, gestured, and said, “That way. Hurry up now.”

    They set off again.

    Elpida’s hands were clammy on the coilgun controls. Her arms ached despite the aim-assist rig around her hips. The weight of the power-tank cut into her shoulders. At least she was dressed now, in close-fitting grey underlayers, the heavy armoured coat, and warm boots. She’d never been uncomfortable with nudity — none of the cadre had been — but she did not want to step outside with nothing between her skin and the dead world beyond.

    Keeping a consistent distance from Lianna’s rear became difficult when descending stairs; the spider-girl scuttled down six at a time. Elpida also tried to keep an eye on Zeltzin, the red-clad swordswoman; she walked as if every joint was a perfectly oiled ball-and-socket, though her red bodysuit showed normal human hips and knees and ankles. She kept touching Lianna’s dun-brown armoured flank. Elpida couldn’t tell if she was tapping her fingers to communicate in secret.

    Elpida’s group stayed close.

    Amina and Kagami stuck to the rear, a light tread and an erratic stumble at Elpida’s back. The younger girl supported the older one, and Kagami did not complain beyond the occasional sharp intake of breath. Atyle flanked them with a steady, confident stride, sometimes lagging by a few paces to stare with her bionic eye at a broken object or empty corner.

    Elpida called out every now and then: “Amina, are you doing okay?”, “Kagami, holding up?”, “Atyle, what do you see? Speak to me.”

    Ilyusha made herself a mobile asset.

    The heavily augmented girl swung around the group in a loose circle as they moved: sometimes at the front, several paces ahead of Elpida, covering Zeltzin at closer range with the rotary shotgun; then dropping back and looping behind, watching side corridors or empty doorways; she guarded the rear, head swivelling, stalking Elpida’s blind spots, before returning to the front again and pointing her shotgun at Zeltzin’s shoulder blades. Her clawed feet clicked with every step; her tail swished back and forth, razor-red tip cutting the air. Elpida would have called anybody else back into formation — the risk of fouling her aim with the coilgun was too great. But Ilyusha knew exactly what she was doing. She never stepped into Elpida’s line of fire. Her coordination was perfect. She didn’t need orders. Perhaps she was trying to make up for earlier.

    Elpida was impressed. She made a mental note, following long habits of command: when they got out of here and found safety, Ilyusha deserved praise and encouragement, and Elpida would give it.

    Vicky stayed glued to Elpida’s right, shadowing her paces, covering the swordswoman with her machine gun. She was breathing too hard.

    The two groups did not speak. Up on Lianna’s back, Inaya barely paid attention. Nobody called out except Elpida.

    Sounds of combat from outdoors — from down below — had dribbled off to a trickle. Sporadic gunfire. A lull in the fighting. Elpida hoped it would die away completely, but she prepared mentally for the worst.

    After about twenty minutes of downward progress, Vicky wet her lips and whispered: “Elpi?”

    Elpida replied in a quick murmur, without looking away from the trio in front. “Vicky. What’s wrong?”

    “Nothing, nothing’s wrong. I just … Can I ask you a question?”

    Elpida knew that tone of voice, even in a whisper, from a woman she’d known for less than six hours, who hailed from a culture she couldn’t imagine. Vicky was cracking under the tension; she needed to talk. Ilyusha was mobile, Atyle was detached, Amina and Kagami were focused on the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other — but Vicky had to keep her weapon pointed and her concentration sharp. Elpida reminded herself that Vicky was not a sister of the cadre. She was not born for this. She was like any other citizen of Telokopolis, like a raw Legion recruit. Elpida had a duty to her.

    Elpida replied in a whisper. “Keep your concentration on Zeltzin. But yes. Go ahead. Ask.”

    Vicky forced herself to exhale, slowly, then murmured: “Why do you think it’s all women?”

    “I don’t understand the question.”

    “All women. Us, Pira, the … cannibal, these three. Even the gravekeeper’s corpse interface thing. Earlier, before Pira left, when you asked her who was outside, she said ‘girls like us’. It’s all women. Why?”

    Elpida hadn’t stopped to consider this; her mind was focused on matters of survival. The cadre had been all female by design, but that was for a dozen conflicting reasons, the internal politics of the project, the pre-existing work of the genetic engineers, and something Nunnus had let slip once: One half believe an all-woman cadre will be more lethal. The other half believed it would make you easier to train.

    What do you believe? Elpida had asked her.

    Neither. Don’t be a fool. You already proved the second half incorrect.

    “I don’t know why,” Elpida whispered back. “Maybe the resurrection systems have a reason. Or maybe there’s men somewhere and we haven’t seen them yet.”

    “Maybe,” Vicky replied. She sounded uncomfortable, but then she attempted to cover it with a tiny laugh. “Maybe the gravekeeper’s just a sicko.”

    Elpida didn’t really understand that comment.

    But before she could ask what that meant, Vicky hissed: “Elpi, I’m really fucking scared.”

    “Of what? Talk to me.”

    “Everything. All of this. I didn’t have time to think about it, but now we’re following these three and I can’t stop. We’re going to walk right into a firefight, aren’t we? If Kaga’s right, all those people out there want to eat us. They’re fighting over us, over the nanomachines inside us — are us. Shit, I can’t even think about that, it’s too weird. And I can’t … I can’t … ” She was breathing too fast, shaking with each inhalation.

    Keep it practical, keep her grounded. “Vicky, focus on my voice. Have you been in a firefight before?”

    Vicky laughed, but it was not funny. “Died in one, didn’t I?”

    “Before that.”

    “A couple of times. I was with the irregulars when the GLR stormed Houseman Square. I was outside, didn’t go room-to-room, but … I did shoot a guard. Three of us did, I mean. Wasn’t just me.” Her voice was shaking. “You don’t even know what that is, though, right? Bet that’s all forgotten, nobody even remembers what Houseman Square was about.”

    “You remember. And you can tell me about it later. Any other firefights?”

    Elpida saw Vicky nod in her peripheral vision, dark face bobbing. “Couple of other times, couple of other battles. I was never any good at it though. Never tip of the spear or anything. I’m so fucking scared.”

    Elpida spoke without looking away from Lianna’s hindquarters. “Vicky, I am going to get us to safety. All of us. I commanded a cadre of two dozen through over three hundred engagements, and I never lost a single comrade.”

    Except at the very end. Lost them all. Elpida’s throat closed up.

    Vicky said: “You serious?”

    Elpida forced her throat open. “Yes. I will do my best to keep you safe. Just follow my orders. The others too. Nobody gets left behind. Nobody ever gets left behind.”

    Vicky fell silent. The grey corridor marched past. Lianna’s limbs clacked and Ilyusha’s claws clicked. Kagami was breathing hard with the pain of her augmetic legs. Elpida flexed her hands around the grips of the coilgun receiver. Her fingers were getting stiff.

    Eventually Vicky whispered: “Thanks, Elpi. Even if we don’t make it.”

    “We will.”

    Four floors down and fifteen minutes later, they found the first corpse.

    Both groups stopped to inspect the body. Lianna and Zeltzin stepped over the crumpled figure, then turned around. Inaya ignored it, staring upward with her blind, machine-encrusted eyes. Elpida and the others drew to a halt.

    An armoured corpse lay face-down in a pool of fresh blood, surrounded by spent casings; a crescent of bullet holes pockmarked a nearby wall. The corpse’s body armour was dark green, bulky plates, nothing like what they’d found in the gravekeeper’s armoury. Ilyusha rolled the corpse over with a taloned foot. The face was a chewed mass of bullet wounds; several more wounds punctured the legs and arms. Scraps of dark brown hair spilled from a metal helmet.

    Zeltzin said: “This wasn’t here when we came through.”

    “Pira’s work?” Vicky asked.

    Elpida nodded. “Casings match. We might catch up with her. Another early arrival?”

    Zeltzin snorted behind her featureless mask. “First of many. We’re taking too long. The lower floors will be full of opportunists. Not all of them are like us.”

    Kagami hissed between her teeth, “Yes, yes, we fucking know that part.” Then, more quietly, to Amina: “Stay put, for fuck’s sake, she’s dead.”

    Atyle stepped forward, bionic eye whirring inside her socket. “Alive with a million artifices. Will this one really walk again?”

    Elpida raised her voice. “Everyone watch the corners and doorways. Do not walk into an ambush. You see anything, you shout. Ilyusha, eyes on our rear, got it?”

    Ilyusha bounced on her claws, grinning at being called upon. “Got it!”

    Zeltzin said, “If we get attacked, we’re not staying to help you.”

    “I still have a coilgun. Just keep moving, take us to the way out.”

    Lianna puffed up her cheeks, staring at the corpse. “I’m hungry.”

    Zeltzin said, “Li, there’s no time. Do what she says. Keep going.”

    The second corpse was much messier: she was crumpled at a corner, a mashed ruin of bone spars and pulped flesh amid a crazed smear of blood up the walls and across the floor, punctuated by hand-marks and dented metal.

    She had too many limbs, too many of which ended in sharp structures which were not hands; some still clutched scraps of grey clothing torn from her escaped prey. Parts of her body were plated with black scales, hard enough to turn aside a knife — or perhaps a bullet? Pira must have been forced to cut open her belly and stab her throat to ribbons, up close. She was a girl, no older than fourteen or fifteen by Elpida’s estimate of her face. That face was serene and amused in death, as if she’d just lost a game of tag.

    Bloody bootprints led away from the close-quarters fight.

    “Your friend got ambushed,” Zeltzin said.

    Ilyusha spat, “Yeah, and won!”

    “Elpi, Elpi,” Vicky was saying. The muzzle of her machine gun was wavering, her head twitching at the grey metal walls, eyes growing wide. “Elpi, you hear that?”

    Amina whined, “We’re not alone. Are we?”

    Kagami hissed: “Shut up. Be quiet.”

    “Hungryyyyyyy,” Lianna moaned.


    Elpida said, “I hear it too, Vicky. Focus. Everyone focus and keep moving. We all hear those noises. Keep moving. Stay together.”

    Ilyusha made her shotgun go clunk. She shouted down the corridor, into the empty rooms, at the furtive sounds gathering beyond line of sight. “Come out come out, reptiles!”

    The fighting outdoors had picked up again, with sustained gunfire and weaponry noises that Elpida couldn’t identify — strange crackles, deep thumps, hard snaps.

    But noises had climbed into the tomb as well.

    The shuffle and scuff of inexpert stalkers, the footfalls of people moving in adjacent corridors; distant voices, harsh laughter, hushed whispers.

    Elpida’s group drew tighter, shoulder to shoulder. She felt Amina’s hand on her back, clutching her armoured coat. Ilyusha abandoned her forward position and walked backwards, covering their rear. Elpida kept the coilgun steady in her aching arms, but both groups sped up by silent agreement. Zeltzin kept one hand on Lianna’s flank, as if ready to leap on her back and speed away.

    A ragged shape bolted across the corridor in front of the trio, vanishing into a side passage. Far behind them somebody was laughing in a high-pitched cackle, which made Amina whimper and sob. Elpida heard a fight breaking out in the distance, muffled by the dividing walls, gunshots and bodies alike hitting the floor. Something screeched with a noise more Silico than human. They passed several more corpses — one half-eaten, another dragged into a dark side-corridor by something which fled from the barrel of Ilyusha’s shotgun.

    Vicky was ready to bolt; Elpida could feel it. Kagami was hissing, “Oh fuck, oh fuck, fuck, fuck.” Ilyusha kept banging the floor with the tip of her tail, a warning signal to anybody who might think of ambushing them.

    “Stay together,” Elpida said. Her voice was steady as a rock. “Stay calm. Eyes up. Keep moving.”

    They hit another staircase. Zeltzin called back as they descended: “Last stairwell! Gates of the tomb are on the right, no more than thirty feet away. We need to run, freshie!”

    “Fast-fast!” Lianna said.

    “Keep going,” Elpida said. “Keep—”

    A shotgun blast split the air: Ilyusha, discharging her weapon at something behind them, further up the stairs, shouting: “Fuck right off!” Amina screamed. So did Kagami. Ilyusha shouted again: “Fuck you! Get out of that fucking tin can!”

    Elpida dared not look round; the trio might flee and leave them stranded. She had no idea if the exit really was that close. Ilyusha fired again, cycling the cylinder for a fresh round. The noise ripped up the stairwell. Lianna’s bionic spider legs were skittering across the metal, desperate to pick up speed. Amina was screaming in terror. Vicky was shouting her name.

    Zeltzin looked back over her shoulder and shouted, “Death’s head!”

    Inaya stirred, sat up, and gasped. Lianna — several tons of bionic spider-woman — shrieked with fear.

    Elpida lowered the coilgun muzzle. “Go!”

    Zeltzin did exactly as Elpida expected: she vaulted onto the back of the bionic spider-girl. Lianna shot forward, scuttling to the foot of the stairs and around a ninety-degree corner to the right, carrying her companions on her back.

    Elpida turned around and raised the coilgun. “Clear!” she shouted.

    Ilyusha bundled Amina and Kagami out of the line of fire, ducking her head and tucking her tail. Atyle watched with detached curiosity, but she was pressed against a wall. Vicky turned too, raising her gun, but she was slower on the draw.

    Shadowy figures scuttled away from the threat of Elpida’s coilgun, vanishing over the top of the stairs. But one did not.

    Nine feet of powered armour stood barely a dozen steps behind them; humanoid and grey, heavy and dark, filthy with dirt and tar and bloodstains. The helmet showed nothing but red eye-slits. The figure wore a necklace of severed heads. Black paint on the chest-plate formed a grinning skull.

    One gauntlet held a spiked mace. The other was raised to point at Elpida. The power-armoured nightmare squawked from an external speaker: “ZZZZ-OMMM—”

    Elpida squeezed the trigger on the coilgun.

    The sound was deafening: the discharge of magnetic power, the crack of the sound barrier, the sabot-round blowing a fist-sized hole through the suit of power armour, the meaty explosion of organs and spine and viscera punched out of its back. The suit of powered armour crashed backward against the stairs in a waterfall of blood and guts.

    Ilyusha whooped at the top of her lungs. “Get fucked!”

    Nothing else came down the stairs.

    “Vicky,” Elpida snapped, loud and quick to force the others past the shock. Her ears were ringing. “Cover our front. Everybody to that corner, around to the right, now! With me! Stay close!”

    Now that she wasn’t covering their hostages, Elpida kept her head turning and her weapon moving. Amina was whimpering, struggling to hold her ballistic shield and help Kagami at the same time. Atyle didn’t seem to care, detached and distant even as she stayed close. Ilyusha kept spitting and hissing. Vicky was shaking all over.

    The gates of the tomb came upon them all at once; the grave disgorged them through a wide mouth, onto a ramp studded with low walls and firing slits and littered with corpses; the dead black sky blossomed over the rotten teeth of the broken skyline.

    Elpida stepped out into a dozen overlapping firefights between vultures and scavengers and worse.

    “Everyone down! Into cover, heads down, down—”

    An amused voice crackled inside her head, directly from her neural lace.

    Too much heat for you, soldier girl? Don’t stop now. There’s something sprinting your way at sixty miles an hour, and it’s so much worse than some overgrown thanatophiliac.

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