Discussion of cannibalism
Discussion of mental illness
When dawn found her comrades still wounded and weary, Elpida’s first priority was to explore and secure the rest of their temporary bolt-hole.
Only Vicky and Atyle were fully awake; she left them with instructions to listen for unexpected noises. Atyle said she saw nothing and nobody nearby, but Elpida insisted on manual confirmation. Vicky protested but she was too exhausted to make demands. Elpida carried only her submachine gun and the contents of her armoured coat. She pulled up the hood to conceal the white shine of her hair, then she slipped out of the tiny concrete chamber and into the corridor.
Sunrise was nothing worthy of the name: ghostly ember-glow along the rim of a black-choked sky.
Elpida crept into the gloom, treading floors paved with cracked tiles, easing past yawning doorways to rot-infested rooms. She stayed away from the windows. She paused to listen for motion, footsteps, or breathing. She held her own breath for minutes at a time. She held her submachine gun in an awkward grip to compensate for her broken right wrist.
She knew the group would not move today.
Telokopolan genetic engineering gave Elpida an advantage at recovery from combat stress reaction and combat fatigue; she felt clear-headed and alert, despite only a few hours of uneasy sleep. All her clade-sisters had been blessed with the same rapid return to sympathetic nervous equilibrium, facilitated by enhanced hormone and neurotransmitter rebalancing.
Mentally she was fresh — but physically she felt awful. Two days of pushing through the corpse-city, the shock of the ambush, and then a rapid retreat to an unsecured hiding place had left her exhausted. She could have picked up and moved on, could have marched through the streets for days without true rest. But pushing her comrades presented an unacceptable risk: they were normal human beings — even if they were nanomachine revenants studded with bionic augmentation. They were not of the cadre, they did not have her advantages. They needed rest and recovery. At least for one day.
Besides, none of them were healing fast enough.
As the others had stirred and returned to sleep, Elpida recognised their exhaustion and mental fog, the post-combat lethargy. That alone would have been enough for her to call a halt; but the physical wounds were worse.
Vicky was bruised and slow, still suffering post-concussive symptoms. Pira had taken more knocks than she let on, though she did a good job of hiding how slowly her bullet wound was healing. Kagami whimpered in her sleep, cradling those bite marks; the nanomachine goo had stopped the bleeding and formed thick scabs, but she was a long way from healed. Ilyusha was quietly nursing several fractures and nasty bruises. Amina was still in some kind of post-euphoric shock.
Atyle was the only one completely untouched; Elpida wasn’t sure if she should be surprised by that. The woman didn’t flinch even in the face of direct gunfire.
Elpida herself was still carrying the echoes of earlier wounds: thin patches of raw-red flesh on her chest and back, remnants of her ‘death’ at the hands of the Silico murder-machine; a massive discoloured bruise across her abdomen from Serin’s bullet, with the accompanying internal damage making her stiff and awkward; an aching right trigger finger; and a persistent cough whenever her heart lurched.
And now her right wrist was broken. She’d done her best to set the bones so her nanomachine physiology could repair the damage, but the flesh was still puffy and tender. Pain throbbed up her arm.
Raw blue nanomachines would heal her wounds in mere hours. But that wouldn’t soothe the group’s fatigue. If they were going to rest, she may as well rest too, and save their resources.
The voice of Old Lady Nunnus echoed in her memories: “Soldiers are not machines. Legionaries are not machines. And you girls are not machines either, never mind what those fools tell you or how much metal and plastic they jam into the back of your skulls. You’re meat and muscle piloted by a wet blob of squishy grey cells. If you do not rest, you will break — yes, even you, ‘Commander’. I know what you think of yourself. And people cannot be fixed like machines. Throw a steak into a meat grinder and see how easy it is to fix.”
Elpida hadn’t quite believed that at the time, but Nunnus was right.
She needed to get the others out of that cramped utility room. They’d slept practically on top of each other. Being crammed together in such a tiny space was not good for morale, psychological recovery, or fraying tempers. Forced proximity presented a risk of internal conflict — especially regarding Amina.
Elpida spent almost an hour exploring the building into which they had retreated. She was uncertain of the structure’s purpose: she had assumed it was residential, but the upper two floors were full of large, airy rooms, some of which contained rows of desks, whiteboards, and bookcases full of sagging pulp.
Most of the rooms had too many big windows, flooded by that dull red light from the black and empty sky. Others were full of gooey wet rot, or skeletal corpses infested with sticky gunk. The bottom floor was not defensible — too many points of access, too many ways in and out, too many ground-floor windows. Up on the third floor she found a few rooms which might serve, mostly empty and large enough for everyone to spread out. She selected what had probably once been some kind of small gym space. The floor was cheap plastic and the walls were whitewashed, clean of rot or holes. A couple of tables stood at one end, surrounded by a cluster of lonely chairs. There was only one window, with frosted glass.
Elpida stood alone in the deep gloom of a dead dawn, armoured hood pulled low over her brow, staring through the frosted glass at the distant mountain-line of the graveworm.
She might not have another chance for privacy that day.
Nothing but regret.
Elpida returned to the group and found everyone awake, groggy, and grumpy. She ordered the move. Nobody complained.
Pira said: “Keep away from the windows as we move. Heads down. And stay quiet.”
But Pira followed with the rest. Away from the windows.
Once they were safely upstairs, dumping backpacks and weapons on the floor, easing themselves down in exhausted heaps, Elpida explained the plan. She stood tall and spoke strong. She pushed her hood down so the others could see her eyes.
“We all need to rest, at least for one day. We can’t push on like this. We’re all wounded and exhausted — combat does that to anybody, even to trained soldiers. There’s no shame in admitting we need rest and recovery. So, that’s what we’re going to do. Rest for today, sleep tonight. Tomorrow morning we can push on for the combat frame again, pending reassessment of our condition.”
Vicky said: “Right on, Elpi. That’s a girl with a plan.”
Elpida took a deep breath. “I think we’re safe here. I haven’t heard anything moving except us. Atyle, would you confirm again with your bionic eye? Are we alone in the structure?”
Atyle answered, “Just us, warrior.”
Nobody asked about Serin; nobody asked if Elpida had seen the sniper again since last night. Was nobody else aware of the assistance Serin had rendered?
Pira was already choosing a corner in which to sit. She said, “We shouldn’t be moving at all. Not until the worm does.”
Atyle smiled, thin and amused. “The warrior is wise enough for the gods. Wise enough for me.”
Kagami didn’t say anything. She looked more exhausted than anybody else. Her auspex visor hung from a limp hand. Ilyusha shrugged and wagged her augmetic tail, then stepped forward to bump her head against Elpida’s side, demanding a head-pat. Elpida gave her that. Amina watched Elpida with bright eyes, openly fascinated and adoring. Elpida gave her a smile and a nod, and asked how she was.
Amina said: “Radiant. Am I radiant?”
Kagami hissed, “Fucking hell.”
“You are radiant, Amina,” Elpida told her. That made Amina smile. She was still smiling when Ilyusha took her hand and diverted her attention.
There was little to do in an empty room in the middle of a nameless corpse-city; Elpida was briefly concerned that boredom might be more dangerous than enforced proximity. But the others surprised her. At first everyone simply split up and dozed. Elpida sat down in a chair, examining her own exhaustion. Ilyusha and Amina spent a while tucked inside their now-habitual nest of spare coats, whispering to each other. They even giggled a couple of times. But then Ilyusha emerged, dragging Amina after her. She fetched some sticks of camo paint from her backpack and started drawing a grid on the floor.
She and Amina played noughts and crosses — Ilyusha had to teach the game to Amina. Quiet whispers passed back and forth. Corners of coat were used to scrub out previous games. They covered a corner of floor in black and red and green. Vicky drifted over, and Atyle watched with interest, her solitary meditation interrupted by curiosity. Once Amina understood the simple game Ilyusha transitioned to something more complex; she drew a whole game board on the floor, used shotgun shells as pieces, and included Atyle and Vicky as players.
Vicky asked, “Illy, is this from your home? Like, something you learned as a kid?”
Ilyusha shook her head. “Naaaah. From here.”
Kagami did not join in, not even at Vicky’s invitation — she refused with a limp shake of her head. The petite, doll-like woman sat slumped against a wall, buried by her over-large coat, augmetic legs sticking out at awkward angles. She barely moved except to lift her left hand now and again, flexing the fingers and staring at her palm. The bite marks on her face, neck, and head stood out with dark red scabbing. Her eyelids were heavy, her lips were slack, her breathing was too hard. She had a sheen of cold sweat on her face. Pira had assured them that nanomachine revenants were immune to illness and infection, but Kagami looked sick. Combat shock? The bite wounds? Something unknown? Elpida decided to watch her closely.
“Elpi,” Vicky said, nodding at the grease-paint game-board on the floor. “You want in?”
“No, but thank you, Vicky.”
“Come on, it’s easy. Aren’t you bored?” Vicky even smiled, a crease in a dark, tired face. “Look at you, sitting there in a chair like the only adult in the room. Super-soldier shit going to your head.”
Atyle explained without looking up: “The warrior watches over us.”
Elpida nodded. “Somebody needs to stay focused and alert. I’m the least affected by fatigue, and my senses are naturally sharper. I need to concentrate on external sounds. And I’m going to patrol the corridor shortly, as well.”
Vicky shrugged. “If you say so. Place for you any time you want, though. Right, Illy?”
“Yaaaaah,” said Ilyusha.
Pira didn’t join in either. She sat in the corner by herself. But as one hour turned into two and two dragged into three, as Vicky drifted off into an uneasy nap, and Ilyusha started teaching Amina and Atyle a new game — one that involved two opposing sides of pieces — Pira eventually stood up and took off all her clothes.
The others were surprised by that, but it made sense to Elpida. Pira checked her own body for additional wounds. Her strangely pale and freckled skin formed a milk-shadow in the red-tinted gloom. Pira rotated each of her joints and stretched all her muscles, then checked her armour for holes and tears and frayed straps. Then she got dressed again. Elpida approved.
Pira sat back down, spread out her personal weapons, and set about field-stripping and cleaning the guns. Elpida approved of that, too.
Elpida took stock of their equipment, spare ammunition, and weapons. She checked the coilgun and power-tank as best she could; she had no idea how to strip or clean the Silico sliver-gun, and doubted it needed such attention anyway. She examined the pair of ballistic shields for cracks, but found none. They hadn’t lost anything since the tomb, nor expended too much ammunition from the bullets and shells crammed in packs and pouches and pockets. They’d even picked up a couple of heavy pistols from the ambush last night. But they couldn’t operate without resupply forever.
There was no such thing as resupply, in this place. Only scavenging, raiding, and looting the tombs.
Elpida counted the cannisters of nanomachine slime. She took them out of the backpack and lined them up.
Thirteen full bottles.
Three short, compared with last night.
She hadn’t counted previously, but her memory had stored the details regardless. The blue glow touched her face and hands as she stared at the bottles lined up on the floor. She counted them three times. A thirst gripped the back of her throat. She resisted that and packed the bottles away again, in full view of everybody else.
Then she picked up her submachine gun, flipped up her hood, and went to walk the corridors.
There was little to see inside the building except dirty plastic floors, plain white walls, and empty rooms tainted with rot. The view from the windows allowed an occasional deeper glimpse through the thicket of concrete and brick. Faraway gunshots echoed between the buildings; strange noises howled in the distance. Elpida was careful to stay out of sight, sticking to the shadows, pausing to listen for hidden movement. She would not allow herself to be taken by another ambush. She would not make that mistake again.
She worked her way to the opposite end of the corridor, along the front of the building, where the windows were wider and the view was better and there was more room to hang back in the shadows.
The plume of smoke from the fallen combat frame had dwindled to almost nothing. A terrible fire must have burned for days, but now there was only a thin trickle of brown, barely visible in the dying firelight of the revenant sun.
Serin was nowhere to be seen.
Who had taken three cannisters of nanites without telling anybody? Kagami, for her wounds? Ilyusha, without guile? Was Elpida over-thinking this? But the empty bottles had been hidden or removed, not added to the other spares full of water. Perhaps she had miscounted.
When she returned to the refuge, Elpida found Kagami sitting in her chair. She was staring down at her hands, at a shiny metal cylinder.
The doll-like woman stirred and looked up when Elpida approached. “Oh,” she grunted, eyes only half-open. “Stolen your seat, have I?”
“Don’t worry, please don’t get up,” Elpida said. “You’re very welcome to it.” She fetched another chair and joined Kagami. Perhaps Kagami wanted company but couldn’t ask for it out loud. The others were all occupied — Ilyusha, Amina, and Atyle were playing yet another game scrawled on the ground; Vicky had gone to sleep; Pira was cleaning Vicky’s sniper rifle.
Elpida waited to see if Kagami would talk without being prompted, but Kagami was more interested in the object cradled in her lap: a shiny metal oblong about the size of a cigar. It was one of the six smart drones Kagami had taken from the tomb armoury, still inactive, just a lump of metal.
Kagami was stroking the drone with the fingers and thumb of her left hand. Her eyes drifted shut, then eased open again. She transferred the drone to her right hand, flexed the fingers of her left, then resumed the idle sensory stimming.
Elpida said, gently, “Any luck getting those powered on?”
Kagami huffed — Elpida guessed it was meant to be a snort, but she didn’t have enough energy. Kagami croaked: “What do you think? If we had drones, we wouldn’t have been ambushed. And where would I get the power? There’s only one source of power around here.”
“Nanomachines, you idiot. Us.”
Elpida let the insult pass. Kagami deserved to vent. She said: “Kaga, how are you holding up?”
Kagami turned dead-tired eyes toward Elpida, and said, “How the fuck do you think I’m holding up?”
“Worse than anybody else. You look sick or ill. I’m not sure why that is, and that worries me. How do you feel? Please, tell me the truth. I won’t leave you behind for being weak, because I don’t do that. Kagami, is something wrong with your body?”
Kagami’s stare dredged her mind out of torpor. She blinked. For a moment Elpida thought she might say something honest.
But then Kagami said, “How do I feel? I’m covered in fucking bite marks because you fucked up. That’s how I fucking feel.” She swallowed, leaned closer to Elpida, and lowered her voice to a whisper. “And we’re dragging around a serial killer. Or have you already forgotten?”
Elpida replied in an equal whisper: “Amina is one of us. She fought for us. She took on a highly augmented revenant with nothing but a knife—”
“And she wanted to stick that knife in you, Commander, if I understood her psycho ramblings correctly.”
Elpida straightened up, out of whispering range, and glanced at the others. Atyle was giving them a curious side-eye. Pira was staring. Amina and Ilyusha hadn’t noticed.
Elpida leaned back in and whispered: “Kagami, if you want to discuss Amina, we should continue in private. Do you feel well enough to stand and walk out into the corridor with me?”
“Fuck her and fuck you,” Kagami hissed. “We can talk right here—”
“Kagami,” Elpida put a touch of command into her whisper. Kagami flinched. “Are you able to stand and walk into the corridor?”
“Y-yes, fine, sure. But—”
Elpida put a firm hand on Kagami’s shoulder — the one without the bite wound. “Then come for a walk with me. We’ll talk.”
Kagami lost most of her bluster by the time she got her feet. She shoved the unpowered drone into her pocket and crossed her arms, then followed Elpida to the door.
Elpida told the others: “I want Kagami to look at a building in the distance with the auspex visor. We might be a few minutes, so don’t worry if we’re not back soon.”
Everyone knew it was a lie to protect Amina — everyone except Amina. Pira looked back down at the field-stripped rifle without a word. Atyle all but grinned. Ilyusha snorted. Vicky was asleep.
Out in the red-lit, window-lined corridor, Elpida led Kagami far beyond earshot of the refuge. Kagami could walk under her own power now, but only with a halting, jerking precision, made more difficult by the need to stay in the shadows. Elpida offered her arm, but Kagami hissed a refusal. Elpida let Kagami set the pace. They walked all the way to the front of the building, to the slightly wider corridor where Elpida had paused earlier to look up at the plume of smoke. Kagami leaned against the wall, bracing her back to take the weight off her augmetic legs.
Elpida said, “We can speak here, but don’t raise your voice. We don’t want to risk attention.”
Kagami tutted. “This is fucking stupid.”
Elpida said: “I want to make this very clear to you. Amina is one of us. She fought for us. I’m not casting her out because she committed murders in life. If—”
“She’s a serial killer!” Kagami said. “She wanted to stab you and then — what, seek forgiveness? What does that even mean?” Kagami tapped her own head. “She’s insane! A crazy person. She’ll stab one of us in the guts while we’re sleeping. Or did they not have serial killers in your perfect future?”
“None of us are a threat to her. She won’t hurt us.”
“How can you know that? Does she need an excuse? We all heard her fucking nonsense up there in that tower. She’ll stab us the moment she gets a chance.”
“Forgiveness and acceptance makes her one of us. You saw what she did for us last night. You saw the choice she made.”
“She’s a murderer, a psycho killer!”
“We’re all killers.”
Kagami squinted. “What?”
“It’s the only thing we have in common. I suspect it might be intentional, perhaps a condition of resurrection. Or maybe only for our group, from that specific tomb, or batch. Soldiers, commanders, revolutionaries. We’ve all killed. Sometimes for a good cause, but maybe not always. You’re no exception to that, as far as I understand. Amina is no different.”
“Oh, don’t spout such fucking nonsense. There’s a difference between being a mad slasher and shooting soldiers in battle. Bet you’ve never done something like what she talked about, huh? You’ve commanded others and shot at the enemy in—”
“Me and my clade-sisters killed one of our handlers at six years old. We used bare hands, stolen plastic cutlery, and a piece of bedsheet.”
Kagami stared, mouth open.
Elpida added: “We ate part of his corpse afterward.”
Kagami blinked three times.
Elpida took a deep, cleansing breath. She thanked Howl. It felt good to speak the truth.
For a moment, Elpida thought Kagami might break down, or sob, or turn away in fear; she would have to intervene if that happened. Kagami was also one of her comrades, whatever difficulties she was having. Elpida wasn’t sure how to deal with that — if this had been one of her cadre, she would have enveloped Kagami in a hug. She suspected that wouldn’t work. She prepared herself for gentle words.
But Kagami pushed herself upright against the wall, eyes bulging, jaw muscles tightening.
“We’re never going to reach that walker mech you’re so obsessed with, because we’re all going to be dead!” she spat — too loudly, voice echoing down the corridors. “Look at us. Look at you!” She jerked her head up and down at Elpida. “You stand straight enough but you’d get knocked on your arse by a stiff breeze.” She hissed a weird laugh between her teeth — and there was the edge of a sob, finally. “What does it matter that we’re carting around a serial killer and a traitor, huh? We’re not going to make it. We could barely make it through one fight. We’re falling apart!”
“Kagami, I’m not going to let us—”
“I shouldn’t be here, I shouldn’t be down here.” Kagami flexed the fingers of her left hand, staring at them as if in pain. “I shouldn’t be on the surface with you dirt-sucking primitives. This place is fucking obscene. All of you are—”
Elpida clapped a hand over Kagami’s mouth. Kagami’s eyes went wide. She flailed against the wall, trying to get away.
But Elpida said: “Be still. Quiet. Listen.”
Heavy, solid, climbing the stairs.
The owner of the boots made no effort to conceal her approach; echoes filled the corridor. Elpida dropped her hand from Kagami’s mouth. Kagami stared at the end of the corridor, shaking and panting. Elpida slipped one hand around Kagami’s waist, preparing to physically pick her up and haul her back to the others.
But then a metallic voice called out in a soft croon: “Only me, fresh meat.”
Elpida relaxed. Kagami was frantic with confusion for a second, then said, “Oh, it’s the sniper-bitch, it’s— fucking hell!”
Serin came around the corner.
Nine feet of black robes hung below a pale half-face, mouth and chin concealed inside that metal mask painted with black teeth. Lank blonde hair was raked back over her skull. Red bionic eyes glowed in the shadows. Shapeless and swaying, Serin walked up to Elpida and Kagami — no longer making any footstep noises. Her robes concealed everything but her head and her hunched back.
“Serin,” Elpida said.
“False Necromancer,” Serin said by way of greeting. Her voice was an amused metal rasp from inside her mask. Kagami was staring, open mouthed; she was also gripping the sleeve of Elpida’s coat. Red eyes swivelled to look at her. Serin made a strange hiss from inside her mask — inhaling? Kagami shrank back.
Elpida said: “This is Kagami. She’s with me. Serin, thank you for the help last night. I’m not sure, but I think you saved my life.”
“Mm. Mmmmm. Huuuuh.” Serin’s red eyes flickered and focused, lenses tightening behind bio-plastic, bouncing back and forth between Kagami and Elpida.
Something was wrong. Elpida allowed her hands to creep toward her submachine gun. Serin wasn’t standing too close, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything.
“Serin,” Elpida said. “What do you want?”
Serin leaned down and forward; she moved slowly, making it clear she didn’t intend any aggression. Elpida put both hands on her submachine gun. Serin leaned close, until her pale skin and all-red eyes were only two feet from Elpida’s face. Then she made that hissing noise again — sniffing, inside her mask. She moved her face to Kagami and sniffed again, several times. She repeated the motion, going back and forth, then straightened up.
Kagami murmured: “What the fuck?”
Elpida kept her hands on her weapon. “Serin, please answer me. What do you want?”
“Better question,” Serin rasped, still amused. “What do I not want? I do not want useful bait to wither away. I do not want to watch fresh meat refuse food.” Lenses irised and adjusted inside her red eyeballs — and focused on Kagami. “Some of you. Know what’s good. Mm. Poor choice of diet.”
Elpida said, “What are you talking about?”
Serin tilted her head and focused on Elpida again. “Fresh meat. Comrade-to-be. Or otherwise.” A spindly pale hand emerged from the black robes and pointed a finger at Kagami. “Kagami is correct. She knows what she needs. You’re weak and failing. You’re falling apart.”
“We’re resting. We—”
“You’re not eating your kills, false Necromancer. You’re starving to death.”
No hunger felt and little thirst to speak of, but those nanomachine bodies still demand fuel. And there’s only so many places to get it. The undeniable reality of flesh was always going to catch up with these zombies sooner or later. But shouldn’t Pira already know about this? She’s been around so many times, why is she not feasting on the dead? And Ilyusha … well, I guess that explains the licking. On a lighter note, this entire chapter was written and edited while listening to the original Resident Evil 2 save room music on repeat! If you want the extended experience, use that as a soundtrack for it.
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And – thank you for reading! Thank you for reading Necroepilogos. I’m enjoying this story a lot, and I hope you are too. We’re finally settling in for the long haul, and I’m really looking forward to more.
Thank you for the chapter.
You’re very welcome indeed! Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for reading!
Thank you for replying.
Such a combat and horror filled reality demands an equally apocalyptic game to play. So why didn’t the y play Monopoly? Also, now I can’t imagine any of these scenes without typewriter sounds playing in my head. Regardless, thanks for the chapter!
Such a violent and horrifying future deserves an equally apocalyptic game. So why didn’t they play Monopoly? Also, now I can’t picture any of these scenes without typewriter sounds echoing through my head. Regardless, thanks for the chapter!
Monopoly would probably be the quickest way to tear the group apart. Very risky.
Yes! Resident Evil typewriter sounds! Perfection. And you are very welcome for the chapter, very glad you enjoyed it, thank you!