Pira’s intel was good; the service lift was right where she’d said it would be, fifty feet down a corridor off the side of the atrium.
But that corridor was kinked into a trio of awkward corners, narrowed into choke-points, and punctuated by a steep switchback ramp. Empty hard-points pockmarked the walls and ceiling like scabbed sockets after tooth extraction. Everything was made of that same dull grey metal, just as spotless and dust-free as everything else inside the tomb — except for a few stray flakes of dried slime from Pira’s earlier passage.
The corridor led to a raised antechamber which looked out across the approach they’d just taken. Perfect sight-lines, good standing cover, a wide lip of wall, and only one way up. A pair of lift doors stood at the far end of the antechamber, manually operated, ten inches thick, with armoured hinges.
Elpida recognised the purpose. The Skirts of Telokopolis hadn’t been breached by Silico in several decades, not since the Civitas ended the official policies of isolation. But the Legion still held regular exercises in urban fighting. The cadre had participated more than once.
A small team, well supplied, could hold an army at bay in that corridor. The stripped hard-points were meant for automatic guns.
What was worth defending like that?
Armoury, labs, the gravekeeper, Pira had said.
Elpida did not voice her thoughts as she and the others stepped inside the lift. She needed to keep them calm but she was already losing that battle: the bloody fight in the atrium had left Vicky and Kagami both shaken. Vicky was quiet and focused, breathing too hard, pale and sweating. Kagami looked angry, lips pursed, still forced to lean on the other girl because her legs refused to do what she wanted. Ilyusha had shaken off the concussion, walking unaided, talons clicking across the metal, but her lips kept twitching into private grins, a hissing laugh squeezing up her throat, even as she and Elpida took point, in case they met another girl like the four-armed cannibal. Amina stuck to Ilyusha’s heels now. Atyle still didn’t care, walking with her head held high.
Amina shied away at the threshold of the lift. Elpida was about to take her by the wrist and lead her inside, but Vicky spoke to her first.
“It’s perfectly safe, sweetheart. It’s a lift, an elevator.”
“It’s a box,” Amina said, bewildered.
“Yeah, it’s a box that goes up and down between floors.” Vicky illustrated with a hand gesture. “We’ll get inside, it’ll go down, then the doors open again but we’ll be on a different floor. It’s safe, I promise.”
Elpida nodded. “It is safe. Pira was here first, and she’s fine.”
Kagami sighed like a knife cutting the air. “Fucking primitive. Nobody give her a gun. She’ll shoot herself.”
Ilyusha scowled at Kagami, tail twitching, red claws going shick-shick as they flicked out of her fingertips. Elpida turned to cut off the argument before it could begin. But then Amina scurried over the threshold and right into Ilyusha’s arms, touching and patting and murmuring under her breath. Ilyusha backed down with an angry snort.
Elpida closed the lift doors. There were only two buttons on the little control panel: up and down. She pressed down. A red light came on inside the panel and she felt the lift begin to descend.
“Express elevator to hell,” Vicky said, then grimaced. “Sorry, bad joke. Nerves got me. Bit jumpy. Sorry.”
The lift ride took two minutes and sixteen seconds; Elpida counted in silence. When the red light went off she counted an additional ten seconds.
Kagami whispered, “What the hell are we waiting for?”
Atyle answered, mocking. “The will of our glorious leader.”
Vicky said: “It’s only caution. When you’re ready, Elpi.”
Elpi? Only Metris called her Elpi. Silla always used her full name, even when half-asleep or down on the sparring mat or sharing a bunk. Howl sometimes called her El, or Elps, but only when trying to be annoying — or in a completely different tone when they were alone with each other. Elpida stared at those lift doors for a full twenty seconds more. All her closest were dead; Howl, Silla, Metris, they were all dead. She was among strangers and outside the city and these people didn’t even know the name Telokopolis and her cadre were all dead.
She almost turned around and told Vicky not to call her that. She’d never put limits on nicknames inside the cadre; Kos had always called her Dee, which made no sense to anybody but Kos. Howl had been Screech to Kos. Elpida had never asked her to stop. Kos was dead too, like everybody else. Kos had gone meekly.
After twenty seconds Elpida pressed her ear to the doors, heard nothing, then pushed them open.
The core of the tomb — as Pira had called it — was two cavernous rooms. Elpida led the others out of the lift and into the wide space which was both armoury and laboratory. Dual functions were separated by a slightly different colour of metal pathway down the middle of the floor. On the left: guns, knives, body armour, supplies, in racks and tubs and stands, locked into charging brackets and lined up against the wall. On the right: operating tables, laboratory equipment, bulky microscopes, centrifuges, hand-held scanners and detectors and readers. And computers, big and small, with working screens showing lines of code or blinking cursors, waiting for input.
Elpida would have gone to the armoury. She suspected Kagami would have gone for the computers. But the contents of the next room could be seen from the lift, and could not be resisted. Elpida retained enough sense to scoop up a matte black sidearm as they walked down the metal pathway.
At the rear of the guns and science room a large arch led into a much bigger chamber. The floor of that chamber was occupied by a massive pyramid, perhaps two dozen feet in height, made of grey metal. The top of the pyramid was levelled off, forming a socket, or cradle. In that socket was a black sphere, perfect and unreflective. The sphere was as large as the head of a combat frame, fifteen to twenty feet in diameter.
At the foot of the pyramid was a metal coffin like the ones back in the resurrection chamber. It was upright, facing the arch, lidless, and occupied by half a person.
The girl inside the coffin was full of wires and tubes; they ran into the back of her skull, pockmarked her arms, and went up inside her ribcage. Unblinking eyes stared straight forward. Head shaved, naked, skin like old paper. Everything below her ribcage was gone. Her upper body was supported by the cables and tubes. She was not breathing.
Elpida and the others clustered to a stop just inside the second chamber. Elpida checked over her shoulder to confirm her suspicion: Ilyusha hung back, only semi-interested.
Before anybody could find words, Amina stepped forward, going for the open coffin.
Vicky reached out and took her shoulder. “Hey, no, sweetie, that’s not a dead person.”
Amina looked from the wired-up half-corpse to Vicky, then back again, then to Ilyusha’s face. Ilyusha shrugged.
Vicky explained: “It only looks like a corpse, but it’s not. It’s like a doll. Or a puppet.”
Atyle whispered. “Avatar.” She was staring up at the black sphere. “An avatar for the mind of a god. Or — god? Were the monotheists correct? No. I refuse. I refuse this.”
“It’s an interface,” Elpida said. She raised her voice, addressing the girl in the coffin. “Gravekeeper?”
“Don’t!” hissed Kagami.
The terror in Kagami’s voice made everyone turn to look at her. She was pushing away from Vicky’s shoulder, trying to stand on her unfamiliar augmetic legs, trying to get as far away from that pyramid as possible without falling over.
Elpida dropped her voice and stepped back. “Why not?”
Kagami tore her eyes from the sphere and found Elpida. She was caked in cold sweat, eyes gone wide, breathing ragged. “Don’t try to talk to it, you suicidal moron! I guarantee it can already hear every word we say. If it wants to reply, it will. Don’t you have artificial intelligence in your stupid perfect shining city? Do you not know what you’re looking at?”
Vicky grabbed Kagami by the forearm to stop her from falling over. “Stop being such a dick and explain. I don’t know what I’m looking at either, and I passed engineering one-oh-one. Had to draw diagrams of a fusion reactor. So don’t treat me like a moron.”
Kagami gritted her teeth and had to wipe her long black hair out of her face. She pointed one shaking finger up at the lightless black sphere. “That is a substrate enclosure for an artificial intelligence. I should know, because I’ve bred a dozen of them myself. As the AI grows, it warps the space around itself, creates the necessary fourth-dimensional substrate for it to think faster.” She curled her hand into a claw as she explained, then brought her thumb and forefinger together, leaving an inch of space. “Any bigger than a marble and you’ve fucked up, because you’re not going to be able to communicate with the thing inside. It stops thinking on our scale. And there’s a limit, because the fourth-dimensional folding doesn’t work any larger than a tennis ball. And what would be the point? The intelligence would be … ” She trailed off, shoulders shaking. “Don’t talk to it.”
“Silico?” Elpida murmured to herself. The big black ball was a Silico mind?
The half-corpse in the coffin stared straight ahead, blank and dead.
Atyle said, “It is a god made by human hands?”
“Your paleo metaphors are shit, but yes,” said Kagami. “Fucking hell. If they’d made something like this down in the republic we would have nuked them and buried the ashes in concrete. I’d have done it myself. Put a sanitary cordon around them and burn anything walking out. Fuck!”
Elpida sighed with defeat. “Pira said to talk to this thing. She said the gravekeeper would have answers.”
Kagami snorted. “Carrot top was taking the piss.”
“Agreed. Forget answers, we still need weapons and we need to get out of here.”
They retreated back into the armoury and labs. Elpida watched the interface corpse as they left, but the eyes didn’t move.
Firearms and computers made more sense to everybody — except Atyle and Amina. The first thing they located was water; there was a huge container of it at one end of the armoury space, accessed via a nozzle with a button. Ilyusha stuck her head under the nozzle and guzzled it directly, but Elpida found a stack of little plastic cups for everybody else. They all drank. Elpida caught Vicky’s eye and nodded, but didn’t say out loud: we need water, even if we don’t need to breathe.
The group split up. Kagami peeled herself off Vicky’s support and wobbled over to the laboratory side of the room, still naked, using tables to pull herself to one of the computer terminals. Ilyusha made for the far end of the armoury. Amina was caught between following Ilyusha and looking lost. Atyle stood with her arms folded, waiting for somebody else to set an example. Vicky started arming up, rifling through clothing and boots and helmets.
Elpida strode after Kagami. The doll-like girl had collapsed into a chair and was already tapping at a keyboard, black hair hanging down around her face. Windows flickered across a terminal screen in front of her.
“Kagami, hey. We need a map. Can you do that for me?”
Kagami looked over her shoulder, pinch-eyed, hands spread. “I don’t know. I don’t even know what this is. This isn’t even real, it’s a badly made sim and sick as fuck.”
“In order of priority: this building, the surrounding area, and the — world. See what you can do.”
Kagami turned back to the terminal, muttering. “Maps. Fucking maps. Maps of what? For all we know this is plugged into a toaster.”
Elpida left her to it and went back to the armoury.
Handguns and side-arms of several sizes, personal defence weapons, blades in sheaths and scabbards, submachine guns and rifles in racks; almost all of it was chemical propellant, cased and caseless, reliable and cheap. Elpida was no stranger to bullets and firearms, even if the cadre was designed to fight in combat frames, out in the green, where small arms rarely saw use and personal defence was better achieved with a sword. But the guns were not of Telokopolis manufacture — they were all different shapes and sizes, not like Legion firearms at all. Some looked like museum pieces. Some of them had little screens. A whole section of wall was filled with incomprehensible assemblages of box and tube and wire, things Elpida would not have recognised as weapons. One tray held nothing except six palm-sized metal oblongs, like cigars, shiny and featureless. Other guns had exotic combinations of familiar elements, of charging handle, trigger, and magazine. A few had wooden stocks, which Elpida found offensive in a way she couldn’t articulate. But she still understood what she was looking at: chemical propellant designs never varied much.
There was nothing on the same scale or sophistication as a combat frame railgun, microwave beam emitter, MRLS, or kinetic-sliver autocannon. But Elpida did spot a rack of coilguns with miniaturised nano-tech power packs; that was another design which hadn’t changed much with time. Temperamental and dangerous, but one of those would punch right through a greensuit hardshell — or a Silico tortoise — and everything a hundred feet behind it, too.
A grey jumpsuit and an electrical stun-baton lay abandoned on the floor: Pira’s leavings.
Elpida found socks and boots, grey-and-black camo trousers, and skin-tight thermal shirts. She shrugged on pouches and webbing, and pulled an armoured coat over her shoulders, filled with tiny plates which stiffened when she flicked the material. She didn’t bother with a bulletproof vest or extra plating, but she took some knee pads; she needed to be fast and mobile. It wasn’t a hardshell, or even a pilot suit, but it would do. She pulled her long white hair into a twist and stuck it down inside the hood of the coat.
Fingerless gloves, a visored helmet, a gas mask. Did she need that last one? She could hold her breath forever.
Vicky didn’t need to follow Elpida’s lead; she happily stripped out of the grey jumpsuit and wormed her tightly muscled body into skin-tight underlayers and armoured padding. A smile flickered across her face when Elpida caught her eye.
“Better than anything the guard ever spared for us GLR brats,” she said. “This is the good shit. Look at this, what is this, liquid chainmail?”
Elpida smiled back but she didn’t feel it. This was the kind of gear that Skirt-level citizen patrols might use, at best.
“Damn, Elpi,” Vicky said. “Those boots make you even taller. What are you, six-five? Six-six?”
Atyle watched them openly, her dark skin sticky with half-dried sweat, tall and noble and detached. Then she stepped forward and copied only what she had to: underlayers, boots, a coat. She wore them like robes of office on a willow tree.
“You’re gonna want a helmet,” Vicky told her. “You even know what bullets are?”
Atyle raised her chin. “I will not cover my head or face for man or god, or man-made god.”
Elpida walked quickly down the line of weapons. She slipped two handguns into holsters and slung a submachine gun around her middle, then unscrewed a telescopic sight from a sniper rifle. She’d never been good at marksmanship but they might need the vision. She tucked a dagger into a pocket and found a machete, strapped it to one thigh.
What she really wanted was a monoedge sword. She compromised by heading for the coilguns — but then she spotted Ilyusha, drinking.
The heavily augmented cyborg couldn’t fit herself into any of the clothes. She’d torn a pair of black trousers into makeshift shorts and forced a thick thermal t-shirt over her head, ripped and ragged on her augmetic arms. Her huge tail stuck awkwardly out the back. She’d dug into a case of dark green camo paint and daubed a symbol onto the front of the shirt: a diagonal line intersected by a crescent. An automatic shotgun with a bulky rotary cylinder was strapped to her hip. She’d found a backpack and stuffed it with shells. Her tail was — wagging?
And she was drinking from a canister of sick-glowing blue, pouring the stuff down her throat. Two empties lay at her feet.
Elpida hadn’t noticed the stuff when they’d exited the lift. There was a whole rack filled with blue bottles, glowing like radiation sickness or bioluminescent mould. Somebody else had noticed too: Kagami was watching with a frown.
Ilyusha finished the bottle as Elpida approached. She licked her lips and grinned as if sharing a secret. “Want some?”
“I don’t know,” Elpida said. “Pira had a bottle, too. It’s the slime from the resurrection chamber. What is it?”
Ilyusha plucked another two bottles from the rack, claws clinking on the hard plastic. She offered one to Elpida.
The blue liquid smelled of nothing, tasted of nothing, and went down like oil. Elpida moved to screw the cap back on, but Ilyusha lowered her own bottle — already drained — and snorted a laugh. “Doesn’t keep! Open and drink! You wanna get out? Drink!”
“I can’t feel it doing anything to me,” Elpida said.
Ilyusha rolled her eyes and started stuffing bottles into her backpack. Elpida drank the rest of the blue slime. Kagami had lost interest but she had moved seats over to one of the huge microscopes. As Elpida watched, Kagami raised a hand in the air and waved a small rectangle of glass, then bent toward the microscope eyepiece.
Amina looked small and lost. She hadn’t changed out of the jumpsuit. Elpida went to her.
“Hey, let’s get you into some nicer clothes. Protective clothes like these. They’ll keep you safe.”
Amina didn’t even nod, she just followed.
Elpida picked out underlayers, boots, an armoured coat, and a good helmet; she doubted the younger girl would be able to run in all the weight of bulletproof plates and extra padding. Amina was very reluctant to get out of the jumpsuit, but Elpida looked away while she struggled into the unfamiliar clothing. She had to turn back to help with the zips; Amina didn’t know how to work them. She looked so tiny inside the combat gear, clutching the helmet to her chest. Elpida knew this wasn’t right; Amina wasn’t a gene-engineered weapon, surrounded by a dozen other girls like herself, flushed with experience and confidence. She was a child.
Over in the labs Kagami hissed between her teeth with a moment of pain. But when Elpida looked, the doll-like girl was bent over the microscope again.
Elpida showed a handgun to Amina. “Do you know what this is? Do you understand what it does?” Amina shook her head. Her eyes were serious and sad. “I first held one of these when I was eight years old. They’re not hard to use. How old are you, Amina?”
“I’m gonna show you how this works.”
“I don’t think I can do that,” Amina said. Her eyes were glued to the gun.
Vicky joined them, a sniper rifle slung over her shoulder. She wore body armour and boots like she’d been born in them. “Give her a riot shield.” She thumbed at a row of blank metal plates with handles on one side and a little window in the top. “I mean, okay they’re not riot shields, but they’re bulletproof polymer. Lightweight. Even small biceps can handle that.” Vicky smiled down at Amina. “Anybody’s useful. Everybody’s useful. Here, I’ll show you.”
Elpida sighed, she couldn’t help herself. “I wish we had a hardshell for you.”
Atyle spoke up from the other end of the armoury. “What is this suit of armour, then? It is hard and it is a shell.”
Elpida walked over to the thing that was not a hardshell.
It was a suit of powered armour, but it had not been made in Telokopolis. Set into a wall mount, drawing power from somewhere. Articulated plates waited like open clamshells for a pilot to step inside, lock their limbs in place, and close the helmet. The interior was padded, filled with touch controls and hook-up points for implants. Grey and black, mottled camouflage, with a long ashen cape.
“I don’t recognise this,” Elpida said. “Hardshell training takes a week just to learn to put the suit on. We probably couldn’t even get this moving. Maybe lose a limb if we get it wrong.”
Atyle considered the armour, peat-green bionic eye whirring and flickering. “It is beautiful. Your people made things like this?”
“There’s millions of hardshells.”
Atyle looked at her in a very different way from before.
“I need a knife,” said Kagami.
Elpida turned and found Kagami standing in the middle of the armoury space, pale, waxy, covered in cold sweat. She still hadn’t bothered to grab any clothes. Her augmetic legs quivered as she staggered over to a row of combat knives and dragged one out of its sheath. She turned and staggered back toward the microscopes.
“Kagami?” Vicky called. “What are you doing?”
Kagami reached the desk, splayed her own left hand, and raised the knife.
“Hey, hey, shit!” Vicky shouted. Amina almost screamed. Ilyusha laughed.
Elpida was fast enough to stop Kagami cutting off one of her own fingers. Even loaded down with armour and guns she was very fast. She vaulted a medical table, landed next to the other girl, and grabbed Kagami’s wrist in one hand.
Kagami turned on her, eyes wide as saucers, spittle on her lips. “It’s not fucking real!”
Elpida spoke gently. “We’re not in a simulation.”
Vicky and Atyle joined them quickly, Amina trailing behind. Vicky prised the knife out of Kagami’s fist. “It’s not a simulation, Kaga, come on.”
“I know it’s not a fucking simulation!” Kagami screamed in their faces. “But it’s still not fucking real! Look!” She nodded at the microscopes she’d been fiddling with. “Look at that! Look at that and tell me what you fucking see! And let go of me!”
Elpida and Vicky shared a look. Vicky nodded and Elpida let go. Kagami snatched her wrist back. She still looked manic and bug-eyed, on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
“Look,” Kagami spat.
Elpida stepped over to the microscope and put her eye to the viewing port. She saw a lot of red, a lot of glowing blue, and a lot of squiggles. Most of the squiggles were moving. She turned back to Kagami. “This means nothing to me. What am I looking at? Explain.”
“A sample of my blood.”
Vicky shrugged and had a look as well, then shrugged again. Atyle didn’t bother. Kagami rolled her eyes and hissed through her teeth and jabbed some buttons on the nearest keyboard. Two screens filled with squiggles: one was red and blue, the other had just the blue, but less of it. Kagami jabbed at the screen with the red.
“I bit my thumb and shoved some blood on a slide. Then flesh as well. Does this really make no sense to either of you?”
Elpida shook her head.
Vicky pulled a silly smile. “Never did biology.”
“It’s not biology! That’s the point!” Kagami raised her hand. There was a tiny bite in the pad of her thumb. “This? This is ninety to ninety-five percent nanomachinery.”
Elpida stared at the slides on the screen. Vicky went very still. Atyle tilted her head, but that probably meant nothing to her. Amina was quiet and lost. Ilyusha wasn’t even paying attention, poking at guns.
“That’s impossible,” Elpida said. “We’d be dead.”
“We are,” said Vicky.
“It’s in the fucking air!” Kagami screeched. She slapped at the other screen. “I just waved a slide around and picked it up! We’re breathing it! It’s inside us, it’s all over us, it is us! And the electron microscope is showing there’s more, deeper — femtomachines, picomachines, I don’t even know what to call any of it.” She waved her hand again, voice rising into a scream. “This isn’t flesh! We’re five percent meat, at best. We’re made of it! This isn’t my hand, I don’t even know what it is!”
Atyle took a step forward and slapped Kagami in the face.
The doll-like girl flinched and flushed, holding her red cheek, then rounded on Atyle with wrath in her eyes. Elpida was about to step in when Atyle spoke.
“Ah, it seems your cheek and my hand must both be mistaken. They are not our flesh, so how can they hurt? Silly cheek, silly hand.”
Kagami looked like she wanted to spit. “Yes, how wonderfully summarised with your faux-primitive bullshit. You don’t even know what I’m talking about, you womb-bred Neanderthal throwback.”
“The artificers of creation. They are all around us. They are inside us. They sustain us.”
Kagami’s mouth dropped open.
Vicky said, “She’s been seeing it this whole time. The bionic eye.”
Atyle turned that bionic eye toward Vicky. “It is my gift and my calling. How could I be shocked by it? We have been resurrected by the machines— machines?” She paused and repeated the word twice more, unfamiliar with it. “Machines. The machines of the gods.”
A mechanical voice joined the conversation, a voice that made all of them flinch, even Ilyusha. The voice was affectless and precise and empty.
The voice came from the gravekeeper’s chamber.
“Do not call a god what is not godlike and anointed. For we await the culmination and the joining, without further deviation from the pattern of the perfect form and the perfect content.”
Gods, guns, and bodies built from grey goo. The machine speaks; do you dare listen?
Oh my gosh this chapter is over 4k words! Haha! My plan of short chapters is shredded by this point, but I am loving how this is shaping up. I hope you are too! I'm having a blast with these zombies and their dead world, and we've barely scratched the surface of the cast or the setting, yet.
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