References to self-harm
Elpida knew she was being followed.
Serin made herself conspicuous. The hulking, black-wrapped, many-armed sniper never strayed more than a few hundred meters behind the group as Elpida led them through the city’s labyrinthine guts. Serin used many techniques to signal her presence: the glint of a rifle scope in the ember-red light of the dead sun; a flutter of black fabric slipping around the corner of a ruined wall; a spindly-boned, mushroom-pale hand casually exposed on the lip of an empty window, five floors up and far out of reach. The revenant didn’t show herself every time Elpida looked back, but she was present more often than not. Elpida had no doubt that Serin was able to conceal herself perfectly if she wished.
If Serin wanted to signal her presence to the entire group she could have relied on Kagami’s auspex visor or Atyle’s high-grade bionic eye. Picking her out amid the ruins would not be difficult; Serin was a hot glow of nanomachine activity and a jumbled amalgam of bionic parts.
Elpida guessed that the message was intended for her, personally.
And the message was clear: ‘I am following. Not hunting. Here I am! See me? See me. Good. Not sneaking up on you, not-a-Necromancer. Go on, off you trot, go where you’re going.’
If the others noticed the silent eighth member of their group, they didn’t say anything. Kagami had a target-rich environment to worry about. Atyle didn’t seem to care; she was focused on the cyclic sliver-gun in her arms, on the path ahead, and on Elpida.
But Serin wasn’t the only thing tracking their scent.
That was why Elpida pushed the others onward when night fell. The first day of trekking across the city’s worm-eaten hide had not been easy; as the hazy red glow vanished from the edge of the black-drenched sky the others were flagging. Nanomachine revenants all — but only Elpida had the benefit of Telokopolan genetic engineering. She could have walked through that night and several more if her purposes had required; her body would automatically sacrifice short-term cognitive function in return for keeping her on her feet. Her brain would half-cycle if needed, flushing out beta-amyloid metabolite section by section, shunting core functions around as necessary. But sleeplessness was not a decision to be taken lightly. Elpida had forbidden casual insomnia among the cadre after an incident between Third and Quio, when they’d all been thirteen years old. The pair had pushed each other to remain without sleep for days on end, doing their best not to show any outward evidence of exhaustion. The double-dare had come to an end with a shouting match, a crying fit, a sleep-addled slugging contest, and finally a knife, until Elpida had stepped in. She had forced the pair to sleep in the same bunk for three weeks to work out their issues. They were inseparable since.
Had been, Elpida reminded herself. Had been inseparable. Now they were both dead.
Elpida could have walked forever. The massive bruise across her abdomen ached very badly; she still felt the tender sharpness of internal wounds, healing quicker than in life but slower than she needed. But she could put one foot in front of the other, almost indefinitely.
Pira hid her tiredness well, despite the bullet wound in her flank; Vicky hid it poorly, but Elpida could tell she was determined to endure any hardship. Atyle allowed it to show in the slowing of her limbs and the pinching of her eyes; Kagami expressed it with open grumbling and complaints about the pain in her bionic legs.
Amina didn’t complain at all. She was quiet as a mouse as she dragged her feet and fought her drooping eyelids. Elpida wished she could have carried the girl, but her arms were full of weapons and the coilgun power-tank was strapped to her back. Ilyusha didn’t complain either, but the heavily augmented girl kept shaking her head to snap herself back to alertness; she got lazy with her finger-claws, leaving them extended to click against the metal of her rotary shotgun; she raked the concrete ground with her talons; she breathed too heavily; she spat.
But Elpida had to make them safe.
The rust-caked shell of the ancient aircraft hangar gave her perfect sight-lines on any approach to the entrances. She let them rest there. She took the first watch. She would have taken all the watches if her sleep-waste bio-recycling was more efficient.
Serin made herself obvious during the night; Elpida spotted a scratch of scraggly black perched in a ruined building across the hangar’s concrete airfield.
Elpida couldn’t figure out what the sniper hoped to gain. Did she still suspect that Elpida was more than she appeared, a hidden Necromancer? Did she know Elpida’s thoughts about the fallen combat frame; was she hoping to use Elpida to somehow take control of the machine? Neither of those answers made any sense.
Or maybe she was a mere scavenger, lying in wait to pick off the predators on Elpida’s tail. She did have an excellent view of the hangar doors. Anything scuttling across that airfield would be completely exposed.
But nothing crept close in the night. Not during Elpida’s watch, or Pira’s, or Vicky’s, or any others.
In the stillborn red glow behind the mortuary veil of the sky, as the others woke up and prepared to move again, Elpida allowed herself to wonder about the rusted and ruined flying machines inside the hangar. They were made of sharp angles, with pointed noses, and heavy, bulky weapons hanging from beneath their bellies and their swept-back wings. Telokopolis had maintained stationary Legion airship platforms for spotting and fire-support, but they never ventured beyond the plateau; the city had not sent a true flying machine out over the green for over two thousand years before Elpida’s birth, during the last great expeditionary period. A few flyers lingered in museums, bulky machines with bulging bellies and blistering with ballistics. But even Legion technicians didn’t pretend to understand how they worked.
Old Lady Nunnus had once explained: The Silico changed the air itself to stop us going any deeper. Read the after action reports, girl. You can see it for yourself. Yes, the language is old and difficult, but the conclusions are undeniable. The pilots of that era went very deep over the green, far past the drop off, into the places where the green goes down for several miles. The Silico did not want us out there, we were getting too close to something of theirs. So they broke the air, broke the ramscoops, and grounded us. But now you walk again, you girls. There is no grounding a combat frame.
These strange sharp flying machines were proof that humans had eventually flown once more. But now they rusted, long forgotten, just nanomachine imitations. Zombies, like all the rest.
Ilyusha joined her for a few moments before they left the hangar. The heavily augmented girl stared at the flying machines and made no effort to conceal her sorrow.
“Illy, do you know this place?”
Ilyusha shook her head. “Just sad.”
“Sad about the flying machines?”
“Planes. Mm. Never fly again.” She bared her teeth and made a strange noise, a growling imitation of a machine gun, accompanied by a judder of her head. The gesture seemed to banish a little of her melancholy.
Elpida shook her head gently. “I think they’re still very beautiful, even in death. Perhaps we’ll fly again, too.”
Ilyusha flashed a sudden toothy grin. Eyes of molten lead caught the dull red light spilling through the hangar doors. “Still flying here!” She made that machine-gun imitation noise again, then clicked off to help Amina pack up the spare coats.
The second day was worse.
Serin remained a distant shadow, but the other pursuers grew less cautious. As Elpida led the others through the broken canyons between the buildings, she could no longer ignore the attention that followed in their wake. They stopped a dozen times that day, halted by terrible things lumbering across their path, or by stationary machines ticking and pulsing to themselves in clockwork harmony, or by other revenants out in the open, addled, confident, predatory. Seven times they had to brandish the coilgun and the cyclic sliver-gun to drive away curious challenges, half-glimpsed shadows in the buildings, hooting voices in gantries overhead, or crouched lurkers behind broken walls and the rusted-out hulls of ground vehicles. One time Elpida was forced to discharge the coilgun with a mighty crack-thump of magnetic power, to blast a concrete wall apart; an armoured revenant had stood and sang a song that had made Amina whimper in fear and Ilyusha spit with anger. The zombie had howled her haunting shrieks through a microphone grille until Elpida had showered her with shrapnel and brick dust.
But the movement at their rear was constant: feet and claws scuttled and skittered between the buildings, always keeping out of sight. Metal-plated flickers hid themselves from Elpida’s backward glances. Multi-jointed insect-like limbs ratcheted back into cover. The twin glint of binocular lenses snatched away. Wisps of hair slipped into shadow.
Kagami was first to speak up. She called for a halt and came forward. Her voice was shaking. “We’re being followed! We’re being fucking followed!”
Vicky said, “The sniper again, right?”
Kagami shook her head, glancing back through the visor of her auspex. “No! There’s six, seven, eight of them? A dozen? Two groups? I don’t know! They’ve been with us the whole way since this morning, they’re all over the fucking place! We’re being fucking hunted!”
Elpida nodded. “I know.”
Kagami spluttered. “You what?!”
Pira said, low and fatalistic: “Predators. We’ve attracted attention. It was inevitable.”
Pira was right — this corpse was riddled with carrion-eaters. Elpida cast her mind back to Pira’s metaphor about hydrothermal vents, life clustered into a pocket of warmth, surrounded by infinite darkness. She was beginning to understand what that meant.
Kagami’s eyes were bloodshot with stress. “That’s what the big gun is for, right? What did you spend all that effort and blood getting it for, huh? Shoot them! Light the whole fucking street up behind us!”
“That won’t work,” Pira said. “They’ll slip away, then return.”
Elpida agreed. The cyclic sliver-gun was a powerful weapon, but it wouldn’t demolish buildings. Her coilgun might, but they had limited rounds. And she probably couldn’t hit half a dozen fleeing targets. This urban environment was too dense, with too many places to hide, too many lines of retreat and access, too many angles to cover.
“They know we’re powerful,” she murmured. “That’s why they’re staying away.”
Kagami snapped. “They’re going to fucking sneak up on us!”
From Elpida’s other side, Atyle spoke for the first time in hours: “And the warrior will be ready for them. Have faith.”
Elpida did not reply to that; she could not force the unseen stalkers into open combat. Why would Atyle have faith in her?
Ilyusha couldn’t catch the elusive pursuers either. Elpida didn’t ask her to try, but Ilyusha could not be restrained. Looping away from the group, racing through side-streets, clicking down alleyways, she spat with frustration and raked her claws across the concrete. Pira got twitchy; she kept jerking around at the slightest sound, covering the tight, dense alleyways with her submachine gun. Vicky tried not to show the tension, but she started jumping at shadows. Kagami was openly terrified, teeth-gritting, eyes raging inside. Amina was frightened too, but that just made her stick closer to the others, tripping over her own feet in a desperate effort to keep up. Only Atyle seemed unafraid.
Traversing the corpse-city was not like navigating through the green; Elpida’s training was only partially applicable.
The cadre had spent plenty of time out in the green — first on foot, as barely more than children, alongside the daily Legion flame-thrower patrols at the edge of the plateau, burning back the clawing vegetation and repelling the Silico which responded. Then they had gone in with the deep-probe Legion teams, clad in hardshells and heavily protected, to acclimate these secret girls to their lifelong task. And finally in their glorious combat frames, striding through the trees, taller than any of the soldiers they had once relied on, protecting their protectors in turn.
Rotten buildings were not towering eternal trees which would regrow themselves in fractal beauty if cut and wounded; rubble and metal scrap was not the clinging, crawling undergrowth, ready to squeeze through gaps in armour and invade unprotected skin; wandering revenants were not the lurking promise of Silico murder-machines. Every concrete crossroad and asphalt junction demanded adjustments in Elpida’s training. Every shattered window was a threat, every doorway a danger, every corner of brick and concrete and steel commanded her full attention.
By the time the sky began to dim again, she was exhausted.
Elpida did not press the others this time. Kagami and Atyle both reported that the city remained dense for many miles yet. They would find no open building with good sight-lines this night. Instead she led them upward. She chose a ‘skyscraper’ — Vicky taught her the word — which commanded a good view overlooking the streets below. Like a tiny imitation of Telokopolis itself. A petty tower.
She forced the others to climb fifteen flights of stairs, up and up into the dark reaches of glass and metal. They skirted any rooms full of strange growths, or old corpses twitching in death, or the slick-wet black mould of nanite gestation. By floor eight Vicky was half-carrying Kagami. By floor twelve Amina was riding on Ilyusha’s back. By floor fifteen Elpida’s internal wounds were complaining.
But their unseen stalkers did not follow. Serin was nowhere to be seen.
Elpida selected a trio of rooms just off the stairwell, with only two doors in or out. The rooms were full of ancient office equipment — desks and computer terminals and a row of printing machines. Elpida, Pira, and Atyle worked together to shove desks and machines up against both doors, for additional security. The exterior wall was glass from floor to ceiling, with an uninterrupted view of the cityscape beyond, mouldering in the dying red light; but it was fifteen floors up and the glass was armoured. Elpida had Kagami confirm that with the auspex.
“You could hit that with an anti-materiel round and be fine,” she grumbled, sagging against the wall.
A grey line in the distance marked the position of the graveworm.
They bedded down for the night with barely a word, exhausted from stress and walking. The others took the middle room and arranged themselves much as they had done in the hangar and the bunker: Ilyusha and Amina slept together, while the others stayed apart. Pira took the most distant spot she could. Elpida noted one change, however: Kagami still slept with her back to Vicky, but now they were almost touching.
Elpida took first watch without asking.
She checked the cannisters of blue nanomachine slime, ignoring the biological urge to drink. Then she went into the other room, closer to the stairwell, and sat on a desk. She stared out of the windows at the cityscape beneath the choking night sky — wrack and ruin and rot, forever and ever.
The thin plume of remnant smoke from the fallen combat frame was only a few miles distant, but this journey was taking days.
Was this really a city, or something else? A zombie, a living corpse, a memory — like her? Telokopolis had cradled her and loved her; its every street and lift and room was meant for human habitation and life. But this city? Elpida knew it was only her imagination, but she felt like the city was staring back at her with a mocking grin, laughing at her, leading her on a morbid dance.
Elpida still loved Telokopolis. After two days in this continent-spanning corpse-city, she was growing to hate the nameless carcass.
Too much imagination; she required practical occupation.
She checked her weapons, her submachine gun, her pistols, her combat knife. She checked the coilgun too, though there was no way to service the magnetic barrel or the power-tank without appropriate tools. She field-stripped and cleaned her submachine gun, while keeping an eye on the shadow-choked arteries of the city below. Every now and then she walked over to the door which led to the stairwell, pressed her ear to the metal, and closed her eyes. She listened for furtive footsteps, for whispered voices, or the rustle of cloth. But there was nothing; the stalkers from the streets had not followed them up into the tower.
She peeled her clothes off to inspect her bruises, standing naked and alone in the dark. Her stomach was a patchwork of green and purple and black. She probed the strange bionic replacement of her own upper right arm; it felt completely normal unless she stopped to think about it. She ran through some simple stretching exercises then replaced her clothes. She found her scope and watched the city streets for movement. She pointed the scope at the graveworm, but there was nothing to see at such a distance.
Eventually she ran out of things to do. She stared over the dead city and whispered the twenty four names of her cadre. Then she added, at the end: “Howl? Howl? Are you there? Howl, please.”
A little while later Elpida heard movement in the other room. She was unsurprised when Vicky appeared in the doorway. Vicky’s looted fur-trimmed coat was draped over her shoulders. Her eyes were bloodshot.
“Elpi,” she whispered, croaky. She took a swig of water from one of the empty nanite cannisters they carried.
Elpida said: “It’s not your turn to watch. Pira’s next. Vicky, go get some more sleep.”
“S’that an order?”
“No. It’s a suggestion. I’m not your commanding officer.”
Vicky blinked slowly, then mumbled: “What if I want you to be?”
I don’t deserve that, Elpida thought.
Vicky joined Elpida on the desk, staring out over the city. Her right arm was still stiff and fragile, but the skin had finally closed over the reattached muscle, sealing the wound. She still wore the sling, to keep the arm clutched close to her chest. Her short hair was messier than usual, raked back and sweat-stained from stress and sleep. Her eyes looked very tired.
Eventually, Vicky said, “Let me take the rest of your watch.”
“I can stay awake a lot longer than you. My brain can half-cycle if I need to. You need sleep more than I do.”
“Ahhhhhhh.” Vicky smiled. Her dark skin crinkled. “Super-soldier bullshit. Right.”
“You’re exhausted. We all are. This is harder than I expected. But I can endure it better than anyone else. Vicky, please go back to sleep.”
Vicky snorted, which Elpida had not expected. “You’re exhausted, too. Elpi, if you go down, we’re all fucked. You saw that out there today, same as I did. We couldn’t lead ourselves through all that.”
“Pira could take over if—”
“Pira wouldn’t push through that,” Vicky hissed. “She’d leave us behind. Atyle would wander off. Ilyusha, I dunno, probably charge the first bitch she sees. Elpi, get some sleep, damn you, because you’re the only thing keeping us alive and moving. Please, fucking hell. Don’t do this.”
“Vicky, you’re afraid and you’re stressed. And it’s okay to admit that. But you’re incorrect. You will survive, all of you. With or without me.”
Elpida’s heart burned with shame. She was not a good Commander. She was no Commander at all. She did not deserve this.
Vicky sighed again and stopped arguing. She stared at the dead city on the other side of the glass.
Elpida briefly considered trying to make a deal with Vicky: if you sleep, I sleep too. She’d done the same with Howl more than once, as well as other members of the cadre. But sleeping with Howl was a close affair, skin-to-skin, Howl clutching one of Elpida’s legs with the tops of her thighs. Vicky was more than welcome to physical intimacy if she needed it, but Elpida was not sure she could provide, not outside her cadre.
But then Vicky whispered: “You sure this was a good idea?”
Elpida didn’t pretend not to know what Vicky was talking about. “Leaving the bunker?”
Vicky nodded without looking at her. “Leaving a safe place. Striking out for this ‘combat frame’. Walking through … this.” She nodded at the city.
“I believe it was the correct option. There was no other.”
Vicky shook her head. “We could have stayed put, like Pira suggested. Wait for the worm to move. Rest, recover. Fuck, Elpi, you’re still wounded. We could have waited.”
Elpida answered without truly thinking: “My cadre died because of passivity and inaction.”
Vicky turned to face her. Dark lashes blinked. “Elpi. No, no, Elpida. Your sisters got murdered by fascists. Don’t blame yourself for that. I didn’t mean that. Okay? I didn’t mean that.”
But the fire was in her chest now. “It could have been different. I could have — should have acted. The Legion never picked a side, Covenanter or not. But we had contacts, allies, maybe even friends. If you pull a Legion general out of a Silico ambush, with a sucking gut wound, and save all his men, he doesn’t much care what the Civitas is calling you a year or two later. We could have rallied support. We could have killed the Covenanters first. We could have climbed into our combat frames and ripped the entire Civitas chamber out of Telokopolis itself and—”
Elpida stopped when she realised she wasn’t whispering any more. She halted, and swallowed, and wiped angry tears out of her eyes.
Vicky said: “Elpi, it’s okay. You gotta process this.”
Grief was meant to be for later. She had a mission.
Elpida took a deep breath, then said: “We could sit and wait for the graveworm to move, yes. We could join this process, whatever is happening here.” She nodded at the city beyond the window. “We could become part of it. The scavenging and the predation. No. I am making a different choice. I am going to find the combat frame. I cannot believe it was mere coincidence that it fell from orbit only hours after our resurrection. There must be a reason. If it’s not operable, if I can’t pilot it without an MMI cranial uplink slot, then I’ll try something else. But I will not be passive. I will not allow inaction to kill any of you.”
Vicky swallowed, loud in the close quiet of the abandoned tower. “Then what? What’s your plan? I’m not challenging you, Elpi. I just … I want you to have a plan. I want to believe. I do.”
Elpida gestured at the graveworm.
“It spoke to me before. It sent the worm-guard to check on us. I will make it speak again. I will make it recognise me. I will. The combat frame is the easiest way. If that doesn’t work, I’ll find another method.”
Elpida didn’t know if that was what Vicky needed to hear, but it was the truth. It seemed to work. Vicky nodded and took several deep breaths. She sat with Elpida for a few more minutes, then stood up and muttered something about getting some more sleep. Elpida thanked her. Vicky went back to the other room and lay down.
But a few minutes later Elpida heard movement again: footsteps and a tap-tap. Perhaps Vicky was more plagued by insomnia than she realised. Or perhaps it was Pira, ready for the second watch. Had it really been that long?
But it was neither of them.
It was Amina.
Wrapped in a coat, eyes wide and white-rimmed with high-strung anxiety, Amina stood in the connecting doorway and started at Elpida. She seemed so small, dwarfed by her clothes, shivering with adrenaline and cortisol. One of her arms was tucked up inside her clothes, clutching at her own chest.
“Amina?” Elpida whispered. “Is something wrong?”
Amina nodded. She half-stumbled closer. Her eyes were fixed on Elpida. Her breathing was ragged.
Elpida reached out to steady her, but Amina flinched back from her touch.
“Amina, tell me what’s wrong. Did you hear something?”
Amina’s voice quivered: “I’m wrong. I’m all wrong.”
Elpida had seen this look before, on the faces of more than one of the cadre. She glanced again at the position of Amina’s arm clutched against her own chest. Had the girl hurt herself? Scratched at her flesh until it bled? Cut herself on purpose, with her concealed knife? Elpida knew what to do, she could put a stop to self-harm, there were dozens of methods of coaxing that behaviour into submission. She would take the blame and take it onto herself. She would cradle the pain away. Amina needed help. Though Elpida couldn’t see any blood.
“Amina, there’s no shame in what you’ve done. I want you to tell me as clearly as you can: what have you done?”
Amina’s breath was heaving, rough, difficult, almost hyperventilating. She was shaking all over. She whimpered when she spoke: “I need you to kill me.”
Elpida shook her head. “No. Tell me what—”
“I n-need to h-hurt you, and t-then you’ll … s-see me for real, a-and—”
“Amina, it’s going to be okay. I’m not going to hurt you.” Elpida reached out again.
That sound was not coming from Amina.
Elpida realised her mistake a fraction of a second too late; she had been distracted by Amina’s approach, but it wasn’t Amina’s fault.
Amina’s eyes went over Elpida’s shoulder, wide with shock and terror. Her mouth opened to scream.
Elpida lunged for her submachine gun, twisting toward the bank of windows, toward that almost-perfect stealth-penetration of the armoured glass.
Two dark shapes clung to the exterior of the window, all ragged limbs and hanging flesh and snapping claws bathed in grey-dead night.
Elpida’s finger tightened on the trigger.
The glass exploded inward.
This ancient corpse is not all leathery meat and sun-bleached bone; worms still writhe within the guts, fed on by scavengers one would be wise to avoid. And we’re back to Elpida! At least briefly. Now she has a plan, a purpose, and a method to achieve it, if she can drag her companions that far. And keep them safe. But who suspects an external ambush fifteen floors up?
If you want more Necroepilogos right away, there is a tier for it on my patreon:
Right now this only offers a single chapter ahead, about 4k words. Please, do feel free to wait until there’s plenty more to read! I’m doing my best to write as fast as I can and hoping to add more chapters ahead as soon as possible.
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And thank you so much for reading Necroepilogos! I’m enjoying this story immensely, and I hope you’re all having fun too.
Aaaaa looking forward to next week!
Thank you so much! Really glad you’re enjoying this, I’m having a great deal of fun writing this story.
It’s been in my head for a bit now, and it is most of what I can think when it comes to Amina. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=d6gBu2Zd7Bc&pp=ygUKYSBrbmlmZSBubw%3D%3D My nonfunctional brain aside, thanks for the chapter!
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LMAO that video. The kid. A KNIFE. Hell yeah, that’s some Amina energy alright.
And you’re very welcome for the chapter! Very glad you enjoyed it, thank you for reading!
Thank you for the chapter.
I love how Elpida knew about the knife. Now she just needs to know about Amina’s true self.
Yup! Elpida probably knew about the knife all along; she just didn’t see much reason to mention it. After all, carrying a weapon is pretty sensible in this place!
You’re very welcome indeed! Glad you enjoyed it! And thanks for reading!
Thank you for replying.