Mention of cannibalism.
Elpida held the auspex visor up to her eyes and pointed it at the blank wall of the bunker.
Matter peeled away layer by layer, flayed by penetrating radar, gravitic deep-tone wave-reflection, quantum-junction informational return, and a dozen other methods which Kagami had named under her breath as she had handed over the equipment; Elpida did not understand half of them, but she trusted the results.
Concrete, steel rebar, several hundred meters of open air above crumbling asphalt — then a tangle of broken brick, buckled breeze block, patchy plaster, shards of glass, and even wood, rotting and flaking and splintering in grand eternal silence. Wood, untouched by the green, so rare and precious in Telokopolis. All wood inside the city had been grown and harvested in tiny amounts, from the vital beating biological heart of the buried fields, tucked deep down in the city’s subterranean foundations. But here it was — wood, exposed to the elements, the acid rain and soot and exotic bacteria, left to moulder like tooth decay inside the countless buildings of this corpse-city.
Elpida reminded herself: the wood was imitation, regrown by nanomachines, no different to steel and brick and concrete. Here, after death, there was no distinction.
Vicky hissed into the darkness, “Why hasn’t she shot us yet?”
Ilyusha replied: “Bitch can’t see us?”
The auspex gear’s on-board programming also considered the wood to be unimportant; the data was captured, processed, highlighted, labelled, and then shunted off to a sub-view side-window, alongside a thousand other details about a slice of the landscape beyond their temporary refuge.
Vicky said, “But she’s aiming at the bunker. She knows we’re here. Right, Elpi?”
Ilyusha just went, “Pffft.”
A ceaseless torrent of information poured in front of Elpida’s eyes: the atmospheric composition and wind speed — there was so much more carbon in the air compared with her time, without the green blanketing the planet; the chemical balance of one hundred thousand individual greasy raindrops, drumming on broken buildings; the estimated rainfall rate as the drops pooled and puddled in asphalt ruts and concrete cracks; the distances between the bunker and the row of buildings opposite, displayed in several different forms of measurement, none of which Elpida could understand.
But even through the deluge of data, the revenant was obvious.
A live mass of high-activity nanomachinery, highlighted in yellow and orange and red. Perhaps crouched or hunched or sitting down — Elpida could not visually disentangle limb from torso, not through the auspex visor. The revenant was in a building on the other side of the road, slightly to the left, three stories up. The auspex separated and labelled an object in close proximity with the revenant, close enough to be in her hands: a long device, long enough to be a rifle of some kind. The visor’s resolution was too low for visual identification. The label was dark red: ‘gravitic weapon signature’.
Kagami whispered, as if the watcher might overhear them: “Do you see it? Elpida, do you see it?”
Elpida pulled the auspex visor off her face and handed it back to Kagami. She blinked and squinted in the sudden darkness after the technicolour explosion of the auspex-sight. Her stomach was churning and her head was spinning; she was meant to be immune to motion sickness.
“Well?” Kagami demanded.
Vicky said, “Elpi, you okay?”
They were back in the main room of the bunker, with the supplies and the guns and the makeshift bedrolls. Glow-stick illumination struggled up the walls, washing Pira’s map and diagram with fading blue. Kagami was leaning against the wall to take the weight off her bionic legs. Vicky hovered at Elpida’s shoulder, cradling her reattached right arm, face tight and drawn with fear. Ilyusha and Amina were awake too; the latter was huddled under a coat pulled up to her chin, watching the others with wide, terrified eyes. Ilyusha had exited their shared nest; she squatted on her black-and-red bionic legs, knife-tip tail slowly lashing the air, arms resting on her knees, fingertip claws extended as if to stretch tiny muscles.
Elpida said, “I’m fine. But I can’t use that visor, it’s causing motion sickness, or something similar. How do you get anything useful out of it?”
Kagami snorted. She accepted the visor and pulled it back down over her own face. The transparent surface glittered dull green in the dark; Kagami’s eyes looked huge. “This?”
Elpida nodded, “We had nothing like that in Telokopolis. Not without MMI uplink.”
“Ha,” Kagami said, but she didn’t sound amused. She was too busy adjusting the auspex again and staring up at the revenant outdoors. “Take it you weren’t exactly urban warfare specialists, then? This crap is nothing. Bulky consumer shit we’d sell to surface rubes. Every one of my own logician agents would have a full-spectrum sensor suite ten times more complex than this. I spent ninety percent of my life plugged into software a hundred times more detailed and—”
Ilyusha snapped: “Blah blah!”
She swiped at Kagami’s augmetic ankle with one clawed hand, but intentionally didn’t connect the blow; Kagami flinched and stumbled anyway, and probably would have gone over if not for the wall against her back.
Kagami hissed, “You little shit!” Ilyusha snorted.
“Illy,” Elpida said, gentle but firm. Ilyusha ducked her head in acknowledgement, tapped the concrete floor with her tail, then reached out and gently closed her clawed fingers around Elpida’s ankle. Elpida allowed it.
Vicky cleared her throat. “Kaga, we get the point.”
Kagami said, “Fine, right, whatever. Elpida, you saw where she was though, yes? You saw the nanomachine signal?”
Elpida felt numb. Her mind wanted to focus on the task, but her heart still ached. She nodded and pointed up at where she’d seen the highlighted signal. “Yes, right there.” She paused to cough as her heart jerked in the wrong direction. “I couldn’t make out which way she’s facing or distinguish any body parts.”
Kagami grunted. “Yes, I noticed that too. That’s not just user error. Can’t make out which body part is which.” In the dim light, Kagami’s eyes flickered from the visor to Elpida’s face. She pulled a nervous grimace. “Bad sign, right? What’s up there, hm? Another monster?”
Ilyusha answered, low and uninterested: “Vulture.”
Elpida said, “Kagami, are you certain she’s alone? She’s the only one out there?” Elpida turned one finger in a circle. “We’re not being watched from any other directions?”
“Alone, yes, I—”
“Check again, please.”
Kagami rolled her eyes. She glanced left and right. “There’s nothing—”
“Do a full circle, check in every direction.” Elpida spoke command, to blanket the numb feeling inside her chest. Kagami was basically a civilian, however experienced. “Not just because I’m asking, but because somebody or something else may be sneaking up on us. What we’re looking at now may be a covering position, nothing more. Do it. Please.”
Kagami turned in a slow circle, staring through concrete and steel. Down in the corner, Amina whimpered. Vicky swallowed loudly. Ilyusha clacked her exposed claws against the concrete floor, eyeing her rotary shotgun which lay with the other weapons. Black rain drummed on the roof.
Kagami spread a hand. “There’s nothing here but the one signal.”
“Good,” Elpida said. “Kagami, thank you.” Kagami snorted and waved that off. Elpida continued, “Right, what else can you tell me about the revenant out there? I need intel. Is she armed? Armoured? Muscled? Anything. Any details.”
Kagami squinted up at the blank concrete wall again. “Not much, just like with you. Lots of metal on her. Could be guns, body armour, I don’t know. Thermal shows she’s a bit cold. Colder than us, I mean. Maybe just a degree or two. Completely motionless. I didn’t actually see her arrive, just looked up and there she was. Hasn’t moved an inch. Watching us.”
Ilyusha repeated, “Vulture.”
Elpida looked down at Ilyusha’s dull grey eyes, and said: “Ilyusha, is this a common phenomenon? A lone revenant, stalking a group?”
Vicky let out an unsteady breath. “Wish Pira was here.”
“Ha,” said Ilyusha.
Elpida nodded. She said, “Yes, we need long range comms. But that’s a problem for the future. We have to deal with the situation we’re in. Kagami, keep your eyes on the signal. She twitches, you tell me.”
Kagami muttered, “Yes ma’am, three bags full ma’am. Trust me, she does anything with that weapon, we’re all fucking dead — again. That could crack this bunker like an eggshell, no doubt.”
Amina whimpered again. “S-somebody’s watching us? Illy?” She reached toward Ilyusha, fingers shying away.
Ilyusha showed Amina her teeth. “Vulture, vulture. S’nothing!”
Vicky spoke, making her voice bright for Amina’s sake. “It’s alright, sweetheart. It’s gonna be fine. It’s just somebody we don’t know. Probably she doesn’t even know we’re in here. Probably scared of us too. Chin up, we’re gonna be fine.”
Elpida said, “We have to work from the assumption that she can see us.”
Vicky stared at her in the glow-stick light. “But she’s not shooting.”
Kagami sighed, “I’m not even the only one of us who can see through walls, you limb-dragging dirt eater.” Vicky gave Kagami a cold look. Kagami shrugged and made a so-what face and said, “That wasn’t a reference to your arm, you moron. It’s a generic insult. Practically affectionate.” She huffed. “Look, our commander here is correct. For all we know that bitch up there can see us right back.”
Vicky said, colder than before, “Then why’s she not shooting?”
Elpida said, “Kagami, eyes on target, see if she responds to this.”
Elpida raised one hand over her head. The gesture pulled at the still-healing wounds in her chest and back. Her heart lurched and made her cough twice. She waved the hand back and forth in a repeating, alternating pattern of three short, three long, three short: an ancient signal even in the time of Telokopolis. She kept up the wave for almost thirty seconds. Nobody spoke in the darkness of the bunker.
“Nothing?” Elpida asked. She lowered her hand.
Kagami snorted. “Not even a twitch.”
Vicky said, “Which means she can’t see us.”
Kagami snapped, “Or she doesn’t want us to know she can see us. Lulling us into a false sense of security. But why, if she has that fucking gun? Look at that thing, it’s gravitics.” She made an angry gesture at something nobody else could see. “Miniaturised gravitics, absolute bullshit. This fucking place.”
Vicky said, “Maybe the scanner thing is wrong,”
Kagami shook her head, “It’s working fine. We have no idea what this bitch wants—
“Vulture,” Ilyusha hissed.
“Elpi,” Vicky was saying, “What do we do?”
Kagami carried on, “Could be waiting for us to go to sleep, or trying to flush us out, or get inside our fucking heads and make us all—”
Ilyusha snapped, almost angry: “Vulture!”
“What does that mean, you little goblin fu—”
Elpida raised her voice, “She won’t open fire.”
The others all stopped. Kagami frowned at Elpida, then quickly turned back to watching the mystery observer. Ilyusha looked up in curiosity, anger stalled.
Elpida gently peeled her ankle out of Ilyusha’s grip and went over to the backpacks against the wall. She located Ilyusha’s backpack and pulled out a cannister of blue nano-slime. The stuff glowed softly in her grip. Her throat tightened with an urge to drink; that was new.
She held the cannister up, over her head.
“Oh,” Kagami breathed. “Oh, yes. She was very interested in that. Moved her — head? Looks like a head. Moved it by almost fifteen degrees. Finally broke her statue impression. Got you, bitch. We got you.”
Elpida said, “She’s after the nanomachines.”
“Absolutely,” Kagami hissed.
“Duh!” Ilyusha said. “Wants our goop! And our meats.”
Vicky swallowed, dry and shaky. “And she can see us. Okay. Okay. Alright. I was wrong.”
Elpida said: “She can, or she can see the signature of our raw nanomachines.”
Elpida lowered the nanomachine cannister. She had intended to return it to the backpack, but the faint blue glow caught her eye again; the urge to drink was stronger this time, though she knew the goo was tasteless. More nanomachines would heal her heart, wouldn’t they? Without thinking about what she was doing, she reached over with her other hand to open the lid.
A shot rang out, muffled beyond the bunker — followed by the sound of a bullet hitting concrete, only inches away.
Vicky and Kagami both flinched. Amina let out a strangled yelp. Ilyusha snorted, amused. Elpida stopped reaching for the cannister lid.
Kagami stammered as she steadied herself against the wall: “Why is she shooting at us now? And that wasn’t her gravitic weapon, that was some fucking popgun!”
Vicky was panting with surprise. “She can’t shoot through the concrete, this place is like six feet thick. What the hell? What the— Amina, sweetie, it’s okay, she can’t hurt us with that, she was just trying to spook us, trying to scare us.”
Ilyusha kept laughing, hissing through her teeth.
Elpida said: “That was a statement, not an assault, yes. She’s letting us know she sees us.” She returned the cannister to the backpack, all thoughts of drinking gone for now. “Kagami, what’s she doing?”
“Motionless! Statue! I can’t even see what she shot with!”
Vicky was saying, “That’s not good, that’s really really not good. That’s really not good.”
Amina said, in a tiny voice, “Can’t we … talk to … her?”
Kagami snorted. Ilyusha didn’t even bother to answer. Vicky said, “Sweetie, that’s a nice idea, but probably not. Hey, hey, Elpi, Kaga, you don’t think this is the same person who shot at the worm-guard, right? Like … like predators fighting over a kill?”
Kagami murmured: “How should we know?” Then, louder: “Fuck this bitch. There’s only one way in and out of this bunker and we have a coilgun — right? Right. If she tries to creep up on us, then fuck her — we’ll shoot her first. You see this?!” Kagami raised a finger toward the wall in what Elpida assumed was an obscene gesture. “Fuck you! Simple! Straightforward!”
Elpida just said, “She can likely see the coilgun too. We do not have the element of surprise.”
Amina was breathing too hard, in gaspy little jerks, “B-but … she’s watching. Can’t we say please don’t—”
“Ammy,” Vicky said, “it’s sweet of you, but this person might be dangerous. Might want to hurt us. We have to be careful.”
Elpida said: “No. Amina’s right.”
Everyone looked at her. Kagami looked full away from the target for a moment before catching herself. Ilyusha cocked her head and clicked her claws against the concrete, curious, and no longer laughing. Amina blinked in surprise.
“Oh great,” Kagami muttered under her breath. “Gone soft in the head, brave leader?”
Elpida repeated herself: “We have to make contact.”
Vicky looked worried. Cold sweat was beading on her forehead. “Uh, Elpi, this isn’t one of us. This could be a cannibal. A monster. Anything. She must be after the nanos, which means, you know … ”
“I’ve considered our options. We have to make contact.”
Kagami slid one hand under her visor and gripped her own cheekbones, perhaps to contain a grimace. “How can you not understand the situation? Did you not listen to little miss fucking know-it-all earlier? This world is worse than dog-eat-dog, it’s instant cannibalistic exploitation turned up to eleven! You’re not going to make a fucking friend out there!”
“Elpi,” Vicky said, “I gotta agree, hey? Are you thinking straight? Consider this carefully, yeah? We don’t wanna draw attention.”
Ilyusha was just watching, head tilted to one side. Perhaps she saw the logic as well.
Elpida raised her chin and raised her voice, and made sure to look everyone in the eyes as she spoke. “That revenant is three floors up.” She pointed at the wall. “That’s a good vantage point. Heavy weapon or not, she’s got a good view up and down the road next to this bunker, and a perfect view into the concrete basin in which this bunker sits. We cannot communicate with Pira or Atyle, and we don’t know what direction they’ll come when they return. That revenant up there could creep up on us, and yes, we could kill her with the coilgun. But she could also sit there for the next few hours and then shoot Pira or Atyle when they return, in order to draw us out. We have no way to warn them. We can’t afford to wait. We have to remove this problem before the others get back.”
Vicky blew out a big sigh, then put her face in her good hand. Kagami grimaced, but didn’t raise a complaint. Ilyusha grinned; ‘remove this problem’ may have given her ideas. Amina just watched, chewing on her lower lip, eyes big and glistening in the dark.
Elpida didn’t share the rest of her thoughts; she didn’t want to demoralise anybody. Their options were limited. The revenant was not visible through either of the slit-windows, they were at the wrong angles. They could not relocate; even if they stuck to the shadow of the bunker and somehow avoided the sniper, and if Pira and Atyle knew where to find them, they were still short two able bodies — they could not carry all their gear. They also couldn’t bait the observer out by pretending to go to sleep; that presented the same issue, placing them on the losing side of a waiting game. But there was one other possibility.
“If contact doesn’t work,” Elpida said, “I might be able to draw her out, for a clean shot.”
She pointed at the guns laid out on the floor — at the sniper rifle Vicky had taken from the gravekeeper’s armoury.
Vicky’s eyes went wide. “Oh, hey. I— with this arm, I-I can’t—”
“I’m not expecting you to,” Elpida said. “I’ll do it.”
Kagami squinted: “Why not just blast her with the coilgun?”
“She may be able to see us moving the power signature. The first step is better achieved with stealth.”
There was no further debate. Vicky couldn’t handle anything but a pistol until her arm was healed; Kagami was getting better at controlling her unfamiliar augmetic legs, but she couldn’t crouch or squat or hug the wall of the bunker, and she certainly wouldn’t be able to belly-crawl to get into position; Amina was obviously out of the running.
“Ilyusha,” Elpida said when the heavily augmented girl hopped to her claws. “Illy. I need you to cover my back.”
“Huh,” Ilyusha grunted. She didn’t seem happy with this plan.
“I’m not just saying that to give you something to do or make you feel useful. I need you to stand in that doorway with your shotgun and cover my back. I need you close, in case I make a mistake and get shot. You’re mobile, you’re fast, and you know what you’re doing. And I trust you. I’m going to have Kagami get as close to the doorway as possible so she can relay to me if the target moves. That means you’re protecting her, as well.” Elpida put a hand on Ilyusha’s shoulder, squeezing gently. “Can you do that for us?”
Ilyusha held Elpida’s gaze for a second, eyes like molten lead. Then she broke into a grin. She flicked her tail up and down. “‘Kay. For you.”
Elpida’s heart jumped at that smile. She coughed twice, and tasted blood.
She wasn’t certain that she could change out of her bloodstained grey underlayers without tearing a still-healing muscle, or bruising her heart, or grinding the broken-glass feeling inside her chest into the meat of her lungs; Elpida would have to go out there wearing the clothes she had died in. At least the armoured coat was fresh. She zipped the coat closed over her front, with the emergency blanket still over her shoulders inside, reflective surfaces all tucked away. She slipped an automatic handgun and her combat knife into her pockets, then checked the scope on the sniper rifle and slung it over her shoulder.
Ilyusha grabbed her rotary shotgun, grinning to herself, hissing a word under her breath. Kagami was already getting into position, lowering herself to sit awkwardly halfway up the concrete steps which led to the door.
Vicky ducked her head to whisper privately to Elpida: “Are you sure you should be doing this?”
Elpida nodded. “I’m the only one who can take the shot. I’m wounded, but I won’t have to crawl far, if I have to crawl at all. And I’m going to try to talk to her first.”
“No,” Vicky whispered. “I mean emotionally. You doing okay? Half an hour ago you were … you know.”
“This is how I’m built. I’m focused, I’m ready. Let’s deal with the problem first. Then, later, I don’t know. I can’t think about them now.”
Vicky nodded. “Be safe. Don’t get shot, okay?”
Elpida and Ilyusha went up the steps to the barred metal door, where the shadows gathered. Kagami snorted and said: “Better hope she’s not wearing armour. Piece of old crap like that, no proper sights, no explosive core in the bullets. What are you going to do, tickle her?”
Elpida just said, “I know what I’m doing.”
That wasn’t a lie, but it was an exaggeration; Elpida had never been much of a sharpshooter. In the cadre she would have delegated a task like this to Velvet, or maybe to Dusk — or perhaps to Asp, if she needed somebody to sit completely still in one place for nine hours for the purpose of a single shot. But she was the only one here. As she stood by the metal door, surrounded by the black static of the raindrops, she briefly entertained the notion that the unseen observer was Velvet, or Dusk, or Asp; if it was Asp, Elpida was vastly outmatched. But all she would have to do is call out. The sound of her voice would be enough.
Ilyusha watched in curious silence as Elpida closed her eyes and whispered her cadre’s names.
Then she nodded to Ilyusha, said, “You got my back? Stick to the doorway, relay anything from Kagami,” lifted the metal bar, and cracked the door.
Elpida pulled up her armoured hood and stepped out into the rain.
The bunker squatted at one end of a shallow concrete basin, wide and filthy; dirty rainwater was sluicing along the edges, flowing into drainage holes and vanishing into subterranean darkness. The raindrops felt greasy and gritty on the exposed skin of Elpida’s hands, drumming static on her armoured hood. The air tasted of petrochemicals and wet concrete and obscure rot. Buildings like fossilised tusks reared toward the choking sky in every direction. The graveworm lay still on the horizon, wavering behind a veil of water.
Elpida stuck to the wall of the bunker and followed it to the left, only a few paces to the corner. Ilyusha peered out after her, staying low, eyes on the far end of the concrete basin. Elpida reached the corner and dropped into a crouch, trying not to cough. The rain dulled all sounds behind a wall of static.
She glanced back at the mountain-line on the horizon.
“Graveworm?” Elpida whispered. Then, with a lump in her throat: “Howl?”
But there was no reply. She turned back to her task.
From this angle, the vantage point of the mystery revenant was blocked vertically by the gently sloping side of the concrete basin. Elpida peered around the corner, eyeing the upper floors of the ruins on the far side of the ancient road: glass and steel in grand decay, brick crumbling to nothing, plaster and breeze block and wood exposed like ossified guts.
If she wanted to put eyes on her opponent, she would need to shuffle forward and raise her head.
Instead, Elpida took the rifle from her shoulder and looked through the scope, examining the building just to the left. Raindrops pattered off the barrel. Many floors above the third story were still intact, a tangle of brick outcrops and twisted steel and fragments of glass. That was bad; if Elpida moved forward, the revenant could simply climb higher to get a clean shot at her. Elpida would be exposed. She stayed where she was.
Time to bluff.
Elpida raised her eye from the scope but kept the rifle in place, then called out across the road: “Hello!”
The rain swallowed her words; the effort burned her lungs. She coughed twice, then waited, then called again: “Hello over there! We can see you watching us! What do you want?”
Raindrops drummed on concrete and dripped from the rim of her hood. Elpida waited, counting the seconds up to twenty.
She called out again: “If you don’t reply, and you don’t leave, then I’m going to hunt you. Tell me what you want. You want our raw nanomachines? We can negotiate. We can talk. What do you want?”
A reply came from deep within the rain, howling out across the road; the voice sounded like metal itself had learnt to cackle.
“Sport!” it screeched. “Sport of you — necromancer!”
A sniper duel, in the pouring rain, from a bad position, against an opponent who can see through walls. Even Elpida can’t pull off some tactical trick to overcome this. Or can she? She’ll probably try anyway. Welcome to arc 4! This one might be quite short, I haven’t figured it out yet, depends how well our supersoldier does. Onward we go! Hope you’re enjoying this too!
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Thank you for the chapter.
You’re very welcome! Glad you enjoyed it! And thank you for reading!
Thank you for replying.
Sport you say? Alright then, what sport shall we play? Football? Volleyball? Ping pong? Maybe baseba oh you meant murder. Right. I suppose that makes more sense. Jokes aside, thanks for the chapter!
Hunting the most dangerous game. Then again, ping-pong after the end of all biological life would be pretty sweet. Maybe sometime.
And you’re very welcome! Glad you enjoyed the chapter!
Interesting that while most of the cadre chose English words for their names, Elpida has more of a name-name. Google tells me it’s a Greek word meaning Hope.
Hope still walks the ashes, in this long epilogue.