Content warnings for the entire story: violence, gore, body horror, death, trauma, alienation, post-traumatic stress disorder, medical trauma, etc. Genre-typical subjects such as these will not be covered in pre-chapter content warnings. Pre-chapter content warnings will cover specifics not found elsewhere.
A blossom of alchemical fire grew in quiet flesh; a spark took hold in the wet crimson darkness of muscle and marrow and memory.
And Elpida choked back to life inside her own coffin.
Blank grey steel, inches from her nose. Eyes aching like spent coals, lids rasping like sandpaper. A shallow layer of cold, greasy fluid clung to her back, her buttocks, the undersides of her legs. Hair slicked to her skull and stuck to her neck. A faint blue glow came from left of her head, illuminating her naked shoulder and the side of her ribcage. All she could see was the walls of the container.
She’d awoken sealed in a metal box.
Trapped in a space too small to even wriggle on to her side. No control surfaces floated in front of her eyes, no communication uplink waited in the back of her head, no familiar subconscious acknowledgement came from the rest of her cadre.
Panic overpowered a lifetime of training.
Elpida tried to slam her hands against the inside of the lid, but she’d woken with her arms by her sides, soaked in that viscous cold grease. With so little room to move she only scraped her knuckles painfully across the raw metal, then fumbled to bring her hands up toward the faint light near her head.
She tried to draw a breath, to scream, then discovered she couldn’t. Her throat was clogged. She hacked and coughed and heaved until she spat out a plug of mucus and clotted blood. A mass of wet snot and the taste of iron dribbled down her cheek to join the thin layer of sticky fluid she was lying in, like a drowning rat in a stagnant puddle.
That stalled the scream. Long enough for her to slam her palms against the unyielding metal.
Had the Covenanters drugged her, left her to die in an unpowered capsule?
Elpida had undergone claustrophobia acclimation training inside an unpowered pilot capsule, years ago with the rest of the cadre. But even unmounted from a combat frame and cut off from Telokopolis, a capsule would have cradled her like a fetus in the womb, a precious core of pliant flesh wrapped in layers of machine protection and intelligent armour. A capsule would have cushioned her muscles, braced her legs and spine and skull, flooded her lungs and sinuses with pressure gel, fed her oxygen and glucose, kept her senses dull and brainwaves calm, to wait for rescue. A capsule damaged beyond recovery would have spun her up like an engine, with adrenaline and combat stims and an on-foot extraction plan squirted into her mind-machine interface, to get her up on her feet and moving toward the nearest of her cadre.
But this metal box was no pilot capsule ready to be loaded into the crew slot of a combat frame. Elpida couldn’t see anything but blank metal. She wasn’t even wearing a pilot suit. A downed capsule would have kept her in touch with Telokopolis via anything left functioning, even radio if entanglement was interrupted. A capsule would at least have reached out to the rest of her cadre. A capsule would have felt like a piece of home, even when dead.
Instead she was naked and cold, alone in the dark.
Was this her punishment? A final humiliation for keeping the cadre out of the last two years of politics. For keeping her sisters above the division and conflict in the Civitas. The Covenanters had never liked the program; they’d always voiced suspicion of far-ranging patrols, of the experimental combat frames — not to mention the process of creating the cadre in the first place. No Covenanter had ever called Elpida unnatural, at least not to her face, but it took a fool not to notice the tone of debate in the Civitas. And that was before the coup.
She didn’t care. None of the cadre cared about politics, except maybe Howl. Stupid, beautiful, impossible Howl.
Was the Covenanter victory not complete until she and the rest of the clone-litter were interred underground, not even afforded a proper trial? Was this her execution?
Execution — the word stung like an electric shock.
Memory flooded back like a branding iron inside Elpida’s chest: the long weeks confined in a spire-cell; being marched down a corridor by men who kept greensuit hoods on, as if they were beyond the city walls, as if the war had come home; kneeling; a cold muzzle against the back of her head.
A flare of red pain. Then nothing.
Elpida stifled a second scream by biting the meat of her own hand. She drew blood, hot iron on her dry tongue.
This didn’t make any sense. How had she gotten here? This wasn’t a medical pod, there were no cirgeon-machines, only this greasy amniotic gunk clinging to her skin.
She felt as if she’d surfaced from that cold fluid, risen from deep dreams she couldn’t recall.
And the others, the rest of her cadre, her pack-mates and comrades, where were they? The other two dozen vat-grown girls she’d grown up alongside and shared everything with, her responsibility and her purpose, her co-pilots who knew each other inside and out, whose bodily smells she knew better than her own — where were they? Silla, Metris, Howl, where were they? Her closest, her partners, her lieutenants, where were they? Howl - where was Howl? She needed help more than ever, she needed to scream at the top of her lungs and hear her closest council scream back. She needed to hear the private clade-cant the Civitas and the Legion and even Old Lady Nunnus had always tried to stop them using. She needed the animal noises from their shared childhood, the private noises nobody outside the cadre knew about.
When the Covenanters had turned a spire seeing-room into a cell, the cadre had huddled together in a corner, sleeping in a tight-knit pile for warmth and comfort, like back when they were children. Elpida had tried to keep order, keep their spirits up. She’d posted a guard, had the cadre sleep in shifts, even tried to keep up a sparring schedule. Everyone had still looked to her for leadership.
Despite everything, they had still called her Commander. Even Howl had followed her lead without complaint at long last, and slept in her arms, right there in front of everybody else.
But one by one they’d all been taken away before her, marched out of that cell and off into the dark to cement the rule of the new Civitas. And she’d known. When those men had pressed a muzzle to the back of her skull, she’d known that everyone else had gone on ahead.
Elpida bit into the flesh of her own hand and howled a wordless sound which could never encompass all those names. She came within a hair’s breadth of madness.
Then the screaming started.
Not her own — that choked off before it could be born, mad grief dying on the vine. From beyond the walls of her new prison came a high-pitched cry of pain, a young voice lost in the dark, followed by the unmistakable sound of flesh crumpling against the floor. A second voice joined the first, wailing in urgent panic. Then a third: a deep, hard sobbing. A fourth voice started laughing the hysterical laughter of the void, laughing so as not to scream, broken by hiccups and heaving breaths.
An alarm shrieked, as if the screaming had woken a machine, pulsing out a wave of sound. But it couldn’t smother those voices.
Elpida’s sisters, her cadre, they were all gone. She knew their voices too well to mistake anybody else for them, from Howl’s habitual cackle-bark to Arry’s cold and measured whispers. She knew that wasn’t them screaming out there.
But it was screaming, all the same.
Elpida’s training dragged its vestments back on, tattered and torn into a new and unfamiliar shape. The Covenanters had taken everything from her, Telokopolis had turned more hostile than the worst of the green deeps beyond, and Legionaries with guns had become more dangerous than any Silico construct. She had died, she had felt death shatter the back of her skull, burning red. But yet, she lived.
This time she would not die whimpering in a metal box while somebody else screamed for help.
Elpida took a deep breath and filled her lungs. The coffin could only contain so much oxygen, but she needed to think. She wasn’t even wearing a pilot suit, let alone a proper greensuit and hardshell. She was unarmed, empty-handed, naked. She wouldn’t last five seconds on foot against some Silico monster from beyond the walls of Telokopolis, but she had no other plan. At least she’d die on her feet.
First she had to get out of this box. She pulled one fist back as far as possible, dipping into the layer of cold slime. If she banged on the lid then perhaps one of the people out there would hear. Perhaps they could reach a release mechanism before they were overwhelmed by whatever they were screaming at.
But as she pulled back her fist, Elpida found the source of the faint blue glow; an analogue control panel was set into the metal to the left of her head.
It was tiny, a waterproof eight-button keypad beneath a miniature screen the colour of lead.
The symbols on the keypad and the words on the screen were not in a language she knew, neither Upper-Spire nor Skirts. She didn’t recognise the script. Some kind of Silico writing? But then a spike of pain bloomed inside Elpida’s eyes and head, forcing her to squint and blink.
When she opened her eyes, the keypad was a standard base-8, with numbers she could read — and the words on the screen were legible.
‘A soldier? Don’t make me laugh, dear. At my age, laughing hurts like hell. You’ll eat each other before the end, like all the rest.’
Elpida blinked. The words changed.
‘Good luck, dead thing.’
Another spike of optical pain. She screwed up her eyes, blinking away flakes of dried slime. When she cleared her vision and the pain faded, the words on the screen said ‘cycle complete’. They did not change again.
Compromised, or hallucinating? Neither was good news. If Elpida survived the next few minutes, she knew she had to get her mind-machine interface linked to a clean bank, to flush out any unwanted passengers. She wriggled a hand into the greasy slime behind her neck, following an old reflex to feel for the uplink slot at the base of her skull — but she couldn’t find it.
The Covenanters had shot her in the head, shattered her skull. Why would the uplink be there any more?
That idea was too much to process, threatening to drag her back down into screaming madness.
Practical concerns first.
Elpida couldn’t move her left arm at the necessary angle to hit the keys, so she had to work her right arm over her body. Something cold and hard dragged across her belly as she did, a sensation like metal moving inside her flesh. She gritted her teeth to keep from screaming, focusing on the cries from beyond her metal box. Check the arm later.
She mashed the keypad at random, fingers slipping in the oily slime, hoping to force an emergency release or reset function. The keys yielded, soft and sticky, but nothing happened. The words on the tiny screen did not change. The lid of the coffin stayed shut. The voices outside continued to scream and sob and laugh.
Plan B: shout for help. She filled her aching lungs with a deep breath — but if she made noise then she might attract unwanted attention as well. If she was to make any difference here, wherever here was, she had to be unexpected and quick on her feet. The cry for help died on her lips.
Howl would have known she needed help, without having to ask. Howl would have been at her back, to hold her up. Howl was dead.
Elpida finally screamed at the lid of the coffin, rage and frustration and loss. She slammed a fist against the metal.
And somebody answered. From outside her metal box somebody thumped back, or stumbled against a corner, or just banged the container in passing. That awful, lost laughter was suddenly close, as if the source was right over the lid of her coffin. Then it danced away again.
A heavy mechanical clunk ran through the metal. Elpida froze, heart soaring with relief, then racing with adrenaline. She needed to be ready for a fight, bare-handed. She flexed her muscles in sequence and found them aching, sore, and stiff, as if she’d run a marathon a day earlier.
The lid of the metal box lifted away from her face with a slender hydraulic hiss. A rim of dark red light stabbed beneath the rising lid. The pounding pulse of the alarm filled her ears. The screaming was suddenly raw, close, no longer muffled by metal walls. Elpida braced herself to leap out as soon as the lid was clear.
But then it stopped. Barely twelve inches of gap between the lid and the sides of her metal prison. Hydraulic mechanisms creaked and spluttered.
Stillborn, trapped in the womb.
Elpida pulled her knees up to her chest, the joints screaming as if she’d been kneeling for hours, and then kicked the underside of the lid with both feet.
The metal shuddered like a cracked bell, but refused to shift. Elpida roared at the top of her lungs and kicked again, and again, and again, using her body like a battering ram until her heels ached and her legs muscles were on fire. She lost count by the time she kicked the lid off.
It fell to one side and crashed to the floor with a clatter loud enough to wake the dead.
Elpida grabbed the sides of her coffin and leapt out into a cacophony of living machinery and naked flesh.
Welcome to Necroepilogos!
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