Fresh from the swarming tomb, on the periphery of open warfare between a dozen different carrion-eaters; coilgun power-tank humming on her shoulders, receiver heavy in her hands; and the disembodied voice of the grave worm chuckling a warning of fast-approaching doom.
“—down, behind the walls! Down!” Elpida shouted.
She took one hand off the coilgun receiver and grabbed a fistful of Ilyusha’s thermal t-shirt, then threw herself down behind one of the low walls of black metal, pulling the heavily augmented girl after her. Ilyusha squawked in surprise and clattered when she landed, but she didn’t lash out — she stuck to Elpida’s side. Vicky slammed after them, shoulder-to-shoulder in the tight scrap of cover, hugging the machine gun to her chest. Amina and Kagami stumbled and tripped as they followed, clutching each other, trying to shelter behind Amina’s ballistic shield. Amina was grey with fear, wide-eyed and crying.
“Amina, stay down!” Elpida said. “Stay behind the wall, hold onto that shield! Stay put, stay down! Kagami, hold onto her!”
Atyle stood tall: a dark statue, unafraid and unbowed, framed by the open gate of the tomb, watching the firefights. The lenses inside her peat-green bionic eye whirred and flexed. Stray bullets cracked and chipped the black metal at her feet.
Elpida roared, “If you get shot I will sling you over my shoulder! Get down! Now!”
Atyle didn’t move.
Elpida locked the coilgun receiver to the aim-assist rig around her hips, then shot to her feet and tackled Atyle to the ground. She dragged Atyle back into cover and shoved her against the wall.
Atyle blinked rapidly, offended and speechless, mouth hanging open.
Kagami spat: “Fucking throwback doesn’t understand bullets! Fucking hell, fuck!”
Atyle replied, “I understand perfectly well, you squinting scribe. I cower and scrape for no threat, no sling or arrow or barbed word alike.”
“Then stand up and get domed!”
“I choose not to.”
Elpida looked toward the black sky and said out loud: “Grave worm?” But the voice in her neural lace had gone quiet. Vicky looked at her like she was going mad. “The grave worm communicated again, a few moments ago. It warned me that something’s approaching.”
Kagami said, “Oh, you fucking think?!”
Vicky’s voice wavered. “Elpi? Stay with us, please.”
“I’m fine. Keep your heads down.”
Elpida pulled up her armoured hood and looked over the wall.
She had imagined the exit of the tomb would be grand, akin to the great door of Telokopolis, opened once at the city’s birth and then closed for eternity, with all humanity safe inside the last home it would ever need. The gate of the tomb was more like an open wound.
A ramp led down from a wide opening in the side of the pyramid, then terminated amid the tangle of black metal which Elpida had seen earlier from the high window: bridges and funnels and curtain walls, ditches and bunkers and walkways, all studded with firing slits and low cover. Directly opposite the ramp was a wide clearing. Matte black metal reflected the suffocated sky. On the far side of the clearing was a gap in the exterior curtain wall, too narrow for anything but single file. Beyond that gap lay the ring of bare grey earth which surrounded the tomb, and beyond that was the city.
Elpida recognised the logic: a perfect breakout position for a well-organised team. The layout was designed to guide anybody leaving the tomb around the edge of the clearing, sheltered by low walls and ditches for cover, toward the exit. The clearing in the middle would act as a killing ground, isolating and exposing any group that pushed in through the gap in the curtain wall. A team trying to leave without getting bogged down in combat should be able to leapfrog from position to position, covering each other at every step, all the way to freedom.
Her cadre could have run that gauntlet in their sleep. They’d done worse against the Covenanters, in the final weeks before the end.
But the reluctant dead had already overrun the ragged edge of this open tomb.
Corpses littered the ramp. Some wore pieces of body armour and grey-black camo, others were naked or dressed in rags; some possessed extra limbs, or heads which opened like flowers of flesh, or eyes on stalks, or exposed cybernetic spinal structures, or segmented metal tentacles lying limp and dead; there were dozens more bionic modifications and flesh-made mutations which Elpida did not have the time to catalogue. One of the nearest corpses was more machine than flesh, a stretched-out figure with long fluted limbs in chrome and brass — but still unmistakably human, even dead.
A dozen firefights were playing out beyond the ramp, amid the black walkways and bridges and ditches.
Figures in combat gear and body armour clustered behind cover, exchanging pot-shots and insults, opening up with automatic weapons, leaping the low walls and going hand-to-hand with blades and axes and bionic limbs. The snap-crack of strange energy weapons made the air crackle. There was no uniformity in dress or design or armament — or in bodies. With a quick glance, Elpida estimated that most of the girls she could see were human-scale, but many were shaped oddly, with extra limbs or strange additions. Some were taller or bulkier, encased in armour or plugged into large-scale bionics. Some had more than two legs. Some scuttled. Some had worse.
Elpida’s mind was trained to absorb information and respond with coherent plans, but she was overwhelmed by the details.
A sniper, kneeling on a walkway, up and to the right: a tall woman wrapped all in loose black, the bottom half of her face obscured by a metal mask, spindly pale limbs sticking out of her mobile camouflage. Four arms stabilized a long rifle, two more arms braced her against the ground, while another two worked the trigger and the bolt-action on her gun, snapping off shots down the walkway at unseen foes.
A bionic suit, far to the left, amid the tangle of low walls: a rare splash of dirty white amid the black and grey, a mobile armour rig with plates swinging around on articulated arms. Elpida spotted a snatch of strained face and long brown hair, white helmet-visor raised to shout an order. Other girls followed in the suit’s wake, pushing toward a group who scattered before them.
A blood-streaked nightmare, feeding in the open: a girl — and it was a girl, naked and bristling with quills — was perched atop one of the walls far to the right, clawed feet buried in the throat of another girl she’d brought down, like a bird of prey with a small mammal. She tore chunks of flesh from bleeding meat, then stuck her head up as if to watch for scavengers who might steal her kill.
A rallying point: a flag fluttered over a distant section of the curtain wall, stitched together from pale leather, daubed with a black and grinning skull.
The angle of the walls hid whoever was flying that flag, but Elpida could hear an intense firefight up there.
She spotted the trio from within the tomb: Lianna, Inaya riding on her back, and Zeltzin, dismounted once more. They were on the right-hand edge of the clearing, half-sheltered behind one of the most sturdy walls. Lianna, the bionic spider-woman, had her orange armour plates raised to fend off a hail of gunfire. Zeltzin was spitting something at their attackers — a gaggle of identically dressed, diminutive figures, all in blocky grey armour and silvery helmets.
Beyond the black metal, beyond the curtain walls, the corpse of the city loomed overhead — and past that lurked the distant line of the grave worm.
And down on the left, pinned by gunfire, was Pira.
Her flame-red hair stood out against the black metal like a tear-drop of molten steel. Down on her knees, her back against a low wall at the edge of the clearing, clutching her submachine gun. Her face was streaked with blood, her grey-black camo gear was torn and dirty. Two corpses lay at her feet. A few meters further on, a group of other girls were peppering her position with bullets, shouting at her, trying to flank her position. As Elpida watched, one of the other girls rounded a wall and got a good angle on Pira — but the red-headed girl whirled around, gun tucked tight to her shoulder, and felled her ambusher with a tight burst of bullets.
Elpida ducked back into cover.
Furtive shapes were moving just inside the wide doorway of the tomb, gathering to rush if Elpida and the others didn’t move soon. Distant calls rang out over the sounds of combat: “Freshies!”, “Fresh meat spotted!”, the rarer sentiment of, “Good luck, bitches!”, or more bizarre statements like, “Grist for God’s mill!” and “More souls broken on the wheel of fate!”
Elpida grabbed Vicky’s shoulder. “Vicky, concentrate. Did you see Pira? Over on the left?”
Vicky panted for a moment, wide-eyed, then nodded. “S-she’s in trouble.”
Ilyusha barked: “Reptile fuck finding out! Ha!”
Elpida spoke as clearly as possible. “We need to get to her. Here’s the plan: we skirt the clearing, leapfrogging from position to position. You take Amina and Kagami ahead first, I’ll cover with the coilgun. Then we swap. Atyle follows me as you cover us. Ilyusha can take my rear, she’s mobile.”
Ilyusha cackled. “Your arse is mine!”
“Good enough,” Elpida said.
Vicky frowned and glanced down the line at Kagami.
“Her?” Kagami spat in agreement with Vicky’s doubt. “We’re rushing to the rescue of some bitch who abandoned us?”
Elpida interrupted before mutiny could form up. “Nobody gets left behind. Nobody. Not her, not you. And she’s got the right idea. The quickest way to the exit is around the edge of the clearing, through the good cover. We pick her up, then push to the exit. Shoot anybody and anything in the way.”
Kagami hissed through her teeth. “Fine. I agree with the shooting part.” She blinked and squinted behind the readout visor over her eyes. “I’ve got short-wave and auspex and bloody everything on this thing, and I can’t see anybody between us and her. Unless there’s a bionic abomination invisible on infra-red and radar and rotational-reflective symmetry. Doubt that, but what do I know?”
Elpida nodded. “Kagami, thank you and well done. Keep me informed. Shout my name if you have to. Amina, hold onto her.” The younger girl nodded, still terrified, but better with a responsibility under her belt. “Vicky, you saw the way out as well? The break in the wall?”
Vicky nodded. She was breathing too hard. Her knuckles were white around her machine gun.
Elpida explained. “That’s our target. We leapfrog and cover each other. I know you can do this. I’ve got your back, Vicky.” She glanced around at the others. Amina looked too terrified to take in any information, but Vicky would herd her along. Atyle didn’t seem to care; Elpida would hamstring the woman and carry her if she had to. “That goes for all of you. Everyone stick together and follow my orders, I’ll get us—”
The electric squeal of a loudspeaker howled over the noise of combat, from somewhere up on the curtain wall, below the skull-flag.
“Those who are fresh from the mercy of oblivion, come to us and be freed of this unwelcome burden. Fear not this hell, for it is not meant for you. Your bodies are arisen from the stinking primordial ooze to which you long to return. It is meant for us, the descendants of angels. We will give you mercy and justice in this after—”
Ilyusha shot to her feet, screaming, “Shut the fuck up!”
She discharged her rotary shotgun three times in quick succession, pumping fresh rounds into the chamber. The loudspeaker roared back at her: “You torture yourself by continuing to exist! Subhuman and—”
The loudspeaker died in a hail of gunfire and a deafening screech from an augmented throat, just as Elpida yanked Ilyusha back down into cover. Ilyusha was unharmed but her face was twisted with rage. She spat at the ground and cycled another shell into her shotgun. The sounds of combat intensified up on the curtain wall. Elpida risked a look just in time to see a bionically-altered girl leap through the air and tear down that skull-flag. A ragged cheer went up.
Ilyusha joined in, shouting over the top of the wall: “Yeeeah!”
Vicky let out a shaking laugh. “You got shooters out there, huh?”
Ilyusha wagged her bionic tail. “Always!”
Elpida raised her voice: “We’re going for Pira. Two teams.”
Reaching Pira was the most difficult twenty meters of ground Elpida had ever crossed. This was not her cadre, these were not trained soldiers. Vicky knew what to do: stay low, move fast, wait for the next shouted order, and then stick her machine gun up to spray bullets at the other side of the killing ground, at anybody who might be trying to take aim. Ilyusha didn’t need orders; she shadowed Elpida’s back, shotgun muzzle sweeping the ramp when they moved on, as figures spilled from the mouth of the tomb. But Amina was paralysed with fear, tripping over her own boots, clutching her ballistic shield, tears and snot running down her face; Elpida had to shove her forward, almost picking her up. The two-team plan collapsed instantly. Kagami could barely walk; the stress of an open combat situation was aggravating the nerve-connection issues with her augmetic legs. She crashed into cover, howling with pain. Elpida thought she’d been hit. Atyle stood up and walked, head high, as if bulletproof. Elpida shouted at her, but that made no difference.
They reached Pira just in time. She was blind-firing over her cramped lip of cover, with the opposing group of girls flanking her from two directions at once, howling insults at her as bullets bounced off the black metal: “We’re gonna eat your guts, you midget!”, “She killed Suz, she killed Suz!”, “Fresh meat’s gonna get fucked and eaten! Step up and out!”
She was about to be overwhelmed.
Elpida and the others slammed into cover next to her, uncoordinated and messy, Amina’s shield clattering, Ilyusha jerking her shotgun up and firing at nothing. Atyle just stood there for two or three seconds, exposed in the open; Elpida suspected her lack of care shocked several of the opposing group into ceasing fire for a moment. But then Elpida kicked her in the shin. Atyle hunkered down with a dark expression on her face.
Pira didn’t acknowledge them until Elpida said, “Hey.”
Sky-blue eyes swivelled round in a blood-stained face.
Pira was bruised and battered. She had a huge gash across her forehead and back over one ear, already clotted with wet and sticky blood, matting her hair. She frowned. The expression looked painful.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
Kagami hissed through her pain: “Not like you deserve it.”
Ilyusha barked, “Proved you wrong, bitch!”
Vicky said, “We’re pinned here, we’re gonna get hit!”
Elpida unlocked the coilgun receiver from the aim-assist rig. “No we’re not. Vicky, follow my lead.”
She waited for a tell-tale break in the nearby gunfire, then for the pounding of boots. Elpida rose from cover, shouldered the coilgun, and shouted: “Clear!”
She banked on intimidation over firepower; the gambit paid off as camo-clad figures froze and scattered. One of them — a tall woman in a red chest-plate, with night-black fur all over her face — was brave or stupid enough to raise her weapon instead of fleeing. Elpida squeezed the trigger. Magnetic coils discharged with an electric crack. A sabot-round blew a chunk of wall apart in an explosion of black metal shards, sending the brave black-furred woman howling toward her comrades, bleeding from a dozen shrapnel wounds. Vicky followed up with a hail of bullets — but she aimed over the heads of the fleeing figures, more sound and fury than lethal intent. Ilyusha pumped a couple of shotgun rounds after them as well, cackling and whooping.
Elpida thumped back down next to Pira. Vicky followed. Ilyusha ducked back in, her face split by a grin.
“Kagami,” Elpida said. “On the auspex, do we have a clear shot for the exit?”
Kagami squinted, teeth gritted with pain. “No! There’s too much bullshit in the way, too many people. Another fight. Fuck, what is that thing? Glowing like a fusion reactor.”
Pira was still frowning at Elpida. “How are you dragging this lot behind you? You won’t survive five minutes in the open with all this.”
Elpida said, “Nobody gets left behind. Not even you.”
Pira let out a single puff of breath. Elpida wasn’t sure if that was meant to be a laugh. “You’re serious.”
Vicky was panting on the edge of hyperventilating. “Elpi knows what she’s doing.”
Ilyusha agreed. “Fuck yeah!”
Elpida checked over the lip of cover again. The attackers she had driven off were regrouping over on their left. The exit was about a hundred meters away. And the black sky was churning.
She ducked back down. “Kagami, talk to me. How many people between us and that gap in the wall?”
But the doll-like girl was frowning at her private visor readouts. She swept her long black hair out of her face. “That’s too fast and it’s glowing red hot. Ambulatory reactor? What am I looking at here?”
“Kagami. People. How many?”
“Uh, six … seven … eight? One of them is more polymer than flesh, total obscenity. But, look, there’s something beyond the walls, moving too fast for a person.”
Pira shot forward and grabbed Kagami’s shoulder. Her voice was suddenly focused and tight: “How fast?”
“I don’t know what I’m looking at! Get off me!”
“A small signal, that’s all! Let go!”
A voice rang out across the metal clearing: Inaya, the blind woman, shouting from Lianna’s back. “A star! A star is falling! Oh, clean star, bless us!”
Elpida said, “Pira, what does that mean?”
Pira snapped, “I have no idea. But—”
A loudspeaker squeal split the air for a second time, from up on the curtain wall. A new voice screamed, not the preaching from earlier.
“Zombie! Coming in the front door! Zombie!”
The scream terminated in a jarring crunch as the loudspeaker hit the floor. Pira froze, wide-eyed.
All around them the tone of the fighting changed instantly. Armoured forms broke cover and fled deeper into the tangle of black metal. Predatory shapes scattered, throwing each other to the ground. The most organised groups withdrew in good order as best they could. One voice started howling with doomed laughter. Another was screaming: “You get what you deserve! You get what you deserve!” A third was shouting, “Why now? Why here? What’s it coming here for!?”
Some groups refused to break away. The one that Elpida had driven off was trapped by another group behind them. Elpida peered out across the clearing and saw the spider-trio from the tomb were pinned in place as well: Inaya had dismounted from Lianna’s back, blind eyes and clumsy hands raised to the sky in supplication, toward the roiling darkness. Lianna was tapping her massive bionic legs in place, desperate to run. Zeltzin looked like she was pleading with Inaya.
Up on one of the walkways the sniper Elpida had seen earlier unfolded herself like a spider, revealing even more pairs of arms. She aimed her weapon at the gap in the wall.
Trapped. Whatever was coming, it was coming in through their way out; Elpida knew their best bet was to wait and slip out behind it.
“Pira, what’s happening? Talk to me.”
Pira didn’t answer. Elpida looked round and found Pira with a hunted expression. Her cold blue eyes flickered over each of the others, a quick assessment.
“Pira,” Elpida repeated. “Whatever is coming, I will get us past it, but I need intel. What’s happening?”
Ilyusha laughed with the same mad laughter which had gripped her when she was fresh from the resurrection coffin. She lashed the ground with her tail-spike. “Zombie!”
Pira wouldn’t look at Elpida; she looked the other way, deeper into the tangle of black metal.
Kagami was snapping, “What does that mean? ‘Zombie’? What does that mean? You cryptic bitches, explain!”
Vicky said, “Elpi, Elpi! Everyone is running! What do we do!?”
Elpida grabbed the front of Pira’s bulletproof vest. “What’s happening?”
Pira finally met Elpida’s eyes; blue sky, haunted and empty. She whispered: “I can’t do this again.”
Then she pulled free from Elpida’s grip, lurched into a crouch, and scurried away, making for the edge of the wall, to flee deeper into the tangle of black metal.
Elpida grabbed for her, half-rising from cover. “Pira!”
A sardonic voice crackled across Elpida’s neural lace.
“Too late, soldier-girl. What a shame. Better luck next time, if you even try.”
The zombie arrived with a crack of air pressure.
Elpida heard it rip through the gap in the curtain wall at sixty miles an hour, exactly as the grave worm had promised, pushing a plug of air ahead of itself in an explosive exhalation of grey dust and powdered bone. A blur of clay-brown and gunmetal-grey slammed to a stop dead centre of the killing ground.
The new arrival stood stock-still, feet planted, head clicking left and right to acquire targets.
Tall, gangly, rail-thin, and naked; papery skin the colour of raw sewage, stretched over an artificial skeleton; no face, just a bristle of sensory equipment embedded in the front of an armoured skull, with no mouth or nose or ears or hair or eyeballs, only scar tissue and scabs and inflamed flesh; two bionic legs, digitigrade for speed and balance. Six arms, two with six-fingered, double-thumbed, chrome hands, studded with micro-weapons, close-range flame-throwers, contact-acids, and miniaturized cutting tools; another two arms were functional blades, without artistry or elegance; the final two hooked into bionic attachments for a heavyweight cyclic coilgun and an anti-material rifle; the chest was hollowed out for a deployable chemical laser; bionic structures on the flanks served for manufacture of nerve gas, biological agents, and nanomachine infiltration swarms.
A human form with nothing human inside.
They called it a zombie?
Even Lianna’s spider-body moved and expressed itself like a living creature, no matter how exotic the form. Pira had called them all ‘the reluctant dead’; Vicky had discovered they did not need to breathe; Kagami had confirmed they were made of nanomachines; but everyone Elpida had met here on the far side of death seemed full of life.
But not this thing. This was an animated corpse.
Elpida knew exactly what she was looking at. The form was nothing like the ones she had known, but the violation was identical.
There are zombies, and there are zombies. And then there’s Elpida with a coilgun.
Gosh, turns out there will be a chapter 4 in this arc! But only a chapter 4, not a chapter 5. Then we’ll be on to arc 3, whatever happens next. Let’s all hope Elpida is quick on that trigger. And I hope you’re all enjoying this, because I am having so much fun with this story!
No Patreon link this week. Why? Well, it’s almost the end of the month. Seems unfair to encourage anybody to subscribe!
But there’s also a TopWebFiction entry, for voting. Clicky button makes it go up the rankings, where more people might see the story!
Thank you so much for reading. More very soon. And hey, happy new year!
It was zombie the power armor person was saying! Just maybe calling Elpi that.
I wonder which of the notables we’ll be seeing again. Spider sniper, white bionic suit, quill girl, flag bearers, tomb trio.
Stay sharp Elpi, looks like you’re about to have the hardest fight of your life, such as it is.
Zombie! Indeed. Perhaps it’s some kind of insult, or challenge, or the power armoured person assumed Elpida was … somethign else? I wonder how the people here relate to that word, what it means to them? Well, other than what’s standing right there!
We’ll be seeing plenty of these at some point, eventually! If they survive this encounter, that is.
Elpida needs to stay quick on that trigger, indeed!
Thank you for the chapter.
You’re very welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed it! And thank you for reading.
Thanks for the chapter! I really enjoy your work, please keep in it!
You’re very welcome, glad you enjoyed it! Thanks so much! I’ll keep doing my best.