Author Archives: HY
lepus – 5.1
Uninformed/mistaken references to dissociative identity disorder/plurality
Amina hadn’t told the other girls about the knife.
She took comfort in that while the fighting was going on — in the weight and pressure of the blade: six inches of smooth, unblemished black steel. Amina had never known a knife so beautiful. Perhaps blades like this belonged only in hell. She kept it contained inside the strange stiff sheath, wrapped in an extra shirt beneath her clothes, pressed against the bare skin of her ribs and belly. Her hidden claw.
She took comfort in the secret itself, too. The secret knife felt familiar — though her illicit lethality was hardly remarkable among all the other damned and demons and devils. If she told the others about the knife they would probably consider it a sensible precaution.
So why not tell them? Her own demon was gone, at long last. Since awakening in that metal coffin, Amina had not felt the urge, not once. In damnation, in hell, she was finally free.
But still, she hid the knife.
Amina focused on the sensation of the knife against her ribs as she cowered inside that dirty stone house, tucked deep down in the shadows, her body wrapped in that oversized coat. She was trying not to listen. Gunshots and explosions floated across the road outdoors, through the rainstorm, penetrating the walls of the concrete bunker; Ilyusha had taught her those words — ‘concrete’ and ‘bunker’ — along with dozens of others, like ‘firearm’, ‘bullet’, and ‘bitch’. Amina didn’t like any of those words, but she liked Ilyusha, so she had listened and learned, though she had struggled to understand. She knew that she lacked proper context, but that did not help. Amina had always thought of herself as quite clever; she read better than all five of her elder sisters, and father had encouraged her to write down her few attempts at poetry. But reading was not knowing. Hell was teaching her that.
Vicky and Kagami crouched in the doorway, up the little flight of stairs. Stinking rain pounded the concrete beyond the doorway. Vicky tried to offer some words of encouragement, because Vicky was very kind, but they were both quickly distracted by Kagami’s running commentary on the fight. Kagami’s magic seeing-glass allowed her to look through the walls. Amina didn’t understand most of the terminology — “Fucking mobile drone bombs!”, “Pincer movement, smart, smart, good, I agree,” “She’s right on top of you, look up! Look up! Argh!” — but she could follow the flow. She wished she could stop listening.
She wasn’t afraid for Ilyusha. She had been at first, when Illy had left the bunker to fight the revenant with the big gun. Without Illy, Amina would be alone. Illy was the only one similar to her. The only one with a demon. Amina could not take another death, not so soon. Not after her sisters. Not after the pile of corpses in Qarya’s central square.
But the angel was at Illy’s side. And the angel was invincible.
Amina didn’t want to listen — because Illy and the angel were about to make another corpse. Even without her demon, Amina wanted to see that corpse. She’d always thought that fascination belonged to the demon. But it was her own.
As the gunshots and explosions raged and Kagami hissed and winced, Amina pressed her hand to the knife beneath her clothes. She wormed her fingers in deep and held the strange smooth grip. Amina wasn’t sure if Kagami had seen the knife, but Kagami hadn’t said anything.
A couple of minutes of tense silence passed, filled only with rain, then Kagami snapped: “They’re letting her go!” Her voice echoed in the confined space of the bunker’s single room. “They’re letting her fucking go! What the hell do they think they’re doing?!”
Vicky was panting as she said: “But it’s over. It’s over, right? I’m sure Elpi had a good reason. Maybe this was all a mistake.”
Kagami was furious. “That little fucking borged-up weasel had the sniper literally on the floor! Gun in her face! And what, this is the one time she holds back?!”
Amina spoke up, surprising herself: “But nobody died? Nobody got … nobody died … ”
Kagami hissed between her teeth. She didn’t look at Amina. “Yes, yes. They’re both intact. A bit bruised, I expect, but nothing major. The sniper’s leaving — fuck me, but she’s fast. She’ll be out of range in a moment. Here they come, slinking back home. Pair of morons. I’m going to have some fucking questions for your little friend.”
When Ilyusha and the angel returned to the bunker, they were more than a ‘bit bruised’, in both body and soul.
They entered with rainwater streaming from their coats, laden down with equipment. Amina stayed back as the door was closed and barred; she would only get in the way if she tried to help — and she recognised the undirected anger in Ilyusha’s slumped shoulders. Undirected anger always made her afraid. As soon as the pair were down the steps and safe, Vicky and Kagami showered them with questions.
“Are you hurt? You got wounded, we saw—”
“What the hell did you think you were doing? You fucking moron—”
“Here, put your weapons down, get that coat—”
“That thing was threatening to murder us all, and you—”
“Elpi, slow, go slow, take it easy—”
But Ilyusha was sad and bitter. She shrugged off the words and her coats alike. Blood was drying all over her face and matted in the front of her blonde hair, sticky and hot and crimson. Her own blood. Smeared across her lips.
Illy, covered in her own blood. Amina’s heart strained at the beauty.
Amina tried very hard not to show how she felt as she hurried to Ilyusha’s side — those thoughts were demon thoughts, the same as the corpse-love. Ilyusha folded toward her, tucked into the soft meat of her body, none the wiser. Amina took her hand and inspected the cut on her scalp. She wished she had needle and thread, and something to use as antiseptic.
She whispered: “Illy. You’re wounded. You’re all bloody.”
But Ilyusha ignored her. Ilyusha was part of the argument. Amina wanted to slip away into the corner, but Ilyusha wanted her, so she stayed very still and very silent and prayed to go unnoticed.
“—on our side,” Ilyusha grunted.
Kagami snapped: “What do you mean, our ‘side’? What sides are there out here? There’s no sides left to fucking take, you moron!”
The angel spoke, firm and clear, despite the pain around her eyes: “Kagami, you’re not listening. It was a mistake. A bad one, but an honest one. As far as I can tell, Serin hunts the ‘death’s head’ people we saw back at the tomb. And Necromancers. She wasn’t really after us.”
Kagami scoffed. “Shooting you in the gut, blowing up this little idiot here, using a dozen explosive drones, and then blasting your skull with a gravitic weapon. What was all that, then? Flirting?”
“The gravitic weapon only works on Necromancers. And I’m fine. She was genuinely mistaken. I do not believe she was lying to us.”
Ilyusha hissed: “Fucking shit cunt bitch. Stupid fuck. Should’a shouted to me.”
Vicky laughed awkwardly, and said, “Sounds like she should have checked her targets.”
Kagami snapped at the angel, “And you bought that? You believed that? You let her go, because she sold you some grade-A bullshit.”
The angel shook her head. “I suspect we never actually had Serin at a disadvantage, even when Ilyusha had her pinned. She was heavily modified beneath her robes. Likely armoured. If she had truly wanted to kill us then, I believe she could have done so. She wasn’t even afraid of getting shot.”
Ilyusha hissed, sarcastic: “Immune to bullets. Fuck.”
The angel was wounded too, weary and in pain. She was tensed up around some kind of stomach wound. She kept spitting and drooling dark red arterial blood. Her right index finger was purple and swollen. Vicky fussed over her, handing her a shirt to mop up the blood. The angel thanked her. Amina could barely look, the angel was too beautiful.
The angel raised her broken finger and said: “I’ve already snapped it back into place. I think there’s two distinct fractures, but I can’t be sure. I’m going to let it heal naturally. It’ll be fine.”
Kagami grumbled: “Oh, great, yes, we’ll just wait for our only competent shooter’s trigger finger to heal. Great plan.”
The angel said: “I would prefer to conserve our nanomachine supply.”
Vicky said, “Elpi, come on, you’ve got internal bleeding and you’ve got it bad. You’re ready to drop. You’re barely standing. Drink a mouthful of blue gunk. Just one swig. Please.”
Kagami said, “She could dunk her finger in the raw nanos. Maybe that would work. Who knows?”
Ilyusha snorted. The angel said, “I’m fine. I’ll be fine. I’m more considerably robust than a baseline human being.”
Vicky sighed heavily; the sigh reminded Amina of her mother. She tried not to think about her mother. Vicky said: “Elpi, for fuck’s sake. Yeah you’re real big and strong, super-soldier girl, we all know that, but you’re not invincible. You’ve got nothing to prove.”
Amina knew better; the angel was both immortal and invincible.
Elpida was an angel. Amina had suspected this since before they’d escaped from the pyramid. The fight with the terrible monster had only reinforced her suspicions — what damned soul would throw herself at a demon of hell for others trapped in this place?
But when Elpida came back to life, suspicion became certainty. Amina had pretended to be asleep as Elpida had choked and spluttered and clawed her way back up from hell’s deeper reaches. The others — including Elpida herself — spoke about nanomachines and resurrection and heart muscles, about being animated by tiny invisible clockwork. Ilyusha had whispered to Amina about those things, but Amina knew the truth. Pira had helped by smearing the blue stuff inside Elpida’s wounds, which confused Amina because Pira was terrifying; perhaps Pira knew the truth as well, and wanted to keep the angel alongside them for her own ends.
Elpida was taller than any woman Amina had ever seen, irrespective of breeding or class or diet. Taller than any man, too. Taller even than the armoured Frankish knights who loomed so large in Amina’s waking nightmares of her own death. Elpida moved a little bit like those knights, frightening in her confidence and her economy of motion — but without the swagger and the aggression. Elpida led them where no other could find the right words. She was strong, muscled beneath her clothes like nothing Amina had ever imagined. She was clever, and kind, and impossibly beautiful; that long white hair was not natural, the angles of her face were too perfect to be human, and her voice was like a baited hook, dusky and smooth and honeyed. The angel was so beautiful that Amina could barely look at her without burning inside.
And now she was wounded, and bloodied, and aching — and all the more beautiful for it, just as she had been in death. When the angel had been laid out on the floor of the bunker, Amina had crept forward to touch her face while all the others were sleeping or distracted, just once.
Those were demon thoughts too. Amina had not expected them.
At first, Amina had assumed that Elpida must have done something very terrible to be cast into hell. Had she disobeyed God? Had she turned against other angels? Had she led a rebellion?
God must be wrong, God must be mad, to cast out such an angel.
Amina could not extend such charity to herself. She knew she was meant to be here, in hell, with all the other monsters.
As Vicky helped Elpida drink a small, carefully measured mouthful of the glowing blue magical potion, Amina realised: not all of the blood around Elpida’s lips was from her own internal bleeding. The crimson was smeared across her mouth like a kiss. Ilyusha’s lips and mouth were smeared in a similar fashion.
A blessing! The angel had blessed Ilyusha during combat, with a kiss, because Illy was worthy. Amina felt herself smile, felt her eyes grow moist with pleasure, but then—
A tremble of desire.
Where had the blood come from? Did the angel bite Illy? Did Illy bite the angel? Would Amina ever be worthy of a kiss like that? She doubted, but she wanted. Her lips trembled, her chest fluttered; she barely felt when Ilyusha detached herself from Amina’s side and clicked off toward the doorway to the rest of the bunker. She didn’t notice her own hand touching the knife beneath her clothes. Vicky happened to glance at her; that brought her back to herself. She let go of the knife.
She turned and whispered: “Illy?”
Elpida was peeling off her coat and lifting her shirt to inspect the massive bruise across her stomach. Vicky was helping, actually touching the angel’s ribs and stomach; Amina had to look away from that, or she would freeze up. Kagami was grumbling, pulling her magic seeing-glass off her head. And Ilyusha wanted to wash her face, in the other room with the cistern full of water. Amina fetched the one empty cannister, so as not to contaminate their drinking supply. She hurried to join Ilyusha in the relative privacy of the cistern room. Amina caught Ilyusha about to dunk her whole head and face into the trough of water.
“Illy!” she whispered. “Let me help. Please, Illy, Illy, let me … let me … ”
Ilyusha snorted. Amina knew it was not for her, but she flinched anyway. But then Ilyusha straightened up and stepped back, waiting.
Amina filled the cannister and gently washed Ilyusha’s face. She poured cold, clear water over the shallow head wound, cleaning out fragments of dry clot. She rinsed Ilyusha’s hair. She dabbed at the bloody mess of Ilyusha’s face with a spare shirt from their rapidly dwindling supply. Ilyusha endured the attention with folded arms, grey eyes turned away, her metal tail lashing the air.
Amina knew that her lethal friend was humiliated and frustrated somehow. She knew she should stay quiet, so as not to draw that anger down upon herself. But temptation danced on her tongue.
Every second alongside Ilyusha presented a paradox Amina had never felt in life: fear of anger was transmuted by the beauty of that red-spike tail-tip, by the shiver of Illy’s claws going shick-shick in and out of her fingertips, by the tip-tap of her metal feet on the concrete floor.
Amina thought it would be a beautiful thing to be pierced by those claws.
Which was why she said, in a tiny whisper: “Illy, please don’t be angry.”
touch me rake me penetrate my skin
“Mm?” Ilyusha turned those slate-grey eyes toward her. Amina shivered inside. She wiped a streak of blood from Ilyusha’s jawbone. She longed to suck on the bloodstained shirt. She forced herself to resist.
“Please don’t be angry,” she murmured. “I feel … complicated, when you’re angry. Clean anger is okay. But this … makes me … ”
touch me touch me touch me touch me
“Ehhhh.” Ilyusha unfolded her arms and reached out to hold Amina’s flank with one hand, gentle and comforting. She looped her tail around Amina’s back, the sharp spike inches from Amina’s shoulder. Amina could barely breathe; she tried not to show it. “Not angry,” Ilyusha grunted. “Not with you, Ami. World’s a fuck.”
please God please merciful God tell her to open my belly and spill me upon the floor please God please
Amina waited, praying silently for those claws to cut into her flesh. But Ilyusha was gentle and God was not listening. Ilyusha was not God’s creature, after all.
“ … okay,” Amina whispered eventually. She resumed tending to her friend.
Was this what she was reduced to, without her demon?
Amina had been drawn to Ilyusha by urges she did not understand. She had justified it to herself with the fact that Ilyusha was short and young, like her. The others were all taller, older, and far more frightening.
But that wasn’t the truth; Ilyusha excited her in a way she’d never felt before. Ilyusha was like her. Ilyusha was sharp and vicious and violent — things Amina would never have loved in life. At first she had worried it was her demon, staying silent and unseen, guiding her to new perversions.
Amina had not told Ilyusha about the knife, but she was certain that Ilyusha knew. During all their time cuddled up beneath the spare coats over the last two days, Ilyusha must have felt the hard steel secret against Amina’s belly. Surely she knew.
Besides, Illy must know, because Illy had a demon too.
Ilyusha’s demon was on the outside, in her beautiful metal limbs and her impossible tail and her incredible violence. Or rather, Ilyusha was the demon, and the other girl who sometimes whispered to Amina, she was the host. Ilyusha’s demon was clever and strong and protective. Ilyusha had found a good use for her demon, had made friends with it, and given it free reign.
Amina had often wished she could do the same.
Over the following couple of hours, the others all managed to return to sleep, or at least to lie down and rest. Kagami had an argument with Elpida, using a lot of words and phrases which Amina didn’t understand — “strategic vulnerability”, “hoodwinked”, “trolling” — but Amina could tell that it wasn’t a real argument. The tones told the truth. Kagami was afraid and trying to hide it; she vented for a while, then lay down in a huff and dragged a coat over her head. Elpida and Vicky vanished into the other room for about twenty minutes, beyond Amina’s earshot. She was afraid Elpida would cry and scream again. The angel’s grief had been so terrible to overhear, full of rage and sorrow; Amina was certain she would be flayed alive and reduced to ash if she witnessed it up close. She wondered what Vicky was made of, to endure that pain at such close proximity. But there was no crying or screaming. Vicky and Elpida returned shortly. Vicky had to help Elpida lie down, even though she only had one working arm. Elpida’s stomach was obviously causing her a lot of pain, the muscles going stiff with deep bruises and organ damage.
It was beautiful to watch the angel struggle with her pain.
Ilyusha burrowed down inside their makeshift bed of coats, snuggling into Amina’s flank. Amina liked that. Her body was not pretty or slender or graceful, like her older sisters had been; she was pudgy and thick around the middle, clumsy with her footsteps and her fingers alike. But she was good for cuddling. Illy used her like a pillow.
The first time they had slept in the bunker was after they had fled from the terrible battle with the monster. Amina didn’t understand the city they’d fled through — the impossibly tall buildings, the smooth black surfaces of ancient roads, the fake stone and the black sky and the angel’s corpse in Pira’s arms. She’d understood even less when Pira had gone to work on the angel’s unbreathing meat. She’d retreated, buried herself, been ready to scream, taking comfort only in the knife.
But Ilyusha had spent a long time whispering to Amina beneath the nest of coats. Illy had taught her words, gossiped about the others, asked her questions about herself. Amina had told her all about Qarya and her five elder sisters, and her father, who was very smart and very clever with words and very quick with the merchants. She told Ilyusha about the beauty of her father’s olive groves, and shared one of the poems she had once written, one about the taste of olives in sunlight. It helped to focus on life before the end, before the Franks had built a pile of corpses in Qarya’s burned out remains.
This time, as they snuggled down for sleep, Ilyusha was too exhausted and too sore for much whispering.
Head beneath the covers, Amina murmured: “Illy?”
Ilyusha’s eyes were already closed, her warm metal limbs wrapped around Amina’s torso, her tail looped through Amina’s legs. She grunted. “Mm?”
“The … ‘sniper’, was she very strong and very terrible?”
Ilyusha was silent for a long moment. Amina thought her sharp friend had already fallen asleep. But then Illy said: “Big moron. Don’t worry. Safe with me, Ami. Safe.”
Illy fell asleep after that. Amina struggled to follow.
She didn’t mind sleeping on the floor. In her family house in Qarya she’d had a proper bed, though shared with two of her sisters. She didn’t mind the omnipresent sound of soft, shallow breathing which filled the bunker, nor the static drumming of the rainstorm on the concrete roof as it slowly trailed off. She didn’t even mind when the angel turned on her side to spit and cough blood into a spare shirt. She considered creeping out of her nest to touch that blood. The thought of tasting it made her quiver inside.
Demon thoughts. Bad thoughts. Who tasted blood? Not her. Not anymore.
Amina couldn’t sleep because she hadn’t prayed.
She hadn’t thought about prayer since she’d woken up inside that metal box. For the last few days — the days since her mortal death — she had not prayed even once. It was the first time in her life she had not prayed daily, since she was old enough to remember. True, she had offered up improvised pleas to God, begging really, but she had not sat and prayed, not properly. How could she? She didn’t even know which way to face; if what the others said about the shape of the world was true, then Mecca could be anywhere. If she was correct, if she was in hell, then what use were prayers?
God was great and God was merciful. But God was not here. God did not love Amina.
Her hand found the knife again, safe beneath her clothes. The knife was here. Ilyusha was here.
Amina had taken the knife from the room full of weapons inside the pyramid. She had slipped it inside her clothes when nobody was looking. Back then, she had not understood what ‘guns’ were, but she knew knives all too well. She had worried that the impulse to conceal the knife was the demon working through her, lurking inside her heart. But she had not felt it stirring. She had not felt the urge.
The others all had metal parts. Even Vicky did, hidden inside her body. If the metal parts were gifts from God, then perhaps the part of her which had played host to the demon was gone. Perhaps it had been replaced with metal.
In the shared darkness of the concrete bunker, in place of prayer, Amina cried a few silent tears of relief. The demon was dead. Her own end had robbed it of any more victims.
Ilyusha snuggled against her side. A single red claw pressed against Amina’s shoulder, twitching in and out. She shivered and gasped.
Maybe hell was not so bad after all, with a friend, and no demon.
In the shared darkness, she stared at the angel’s beauty, a few feet away on the floor. She stared at Elpida’s white hair curled around her neck, at her elegant muscles, at the secret wounds beneath her clothes. She saw in her mind’s eye the blood-smeared kiss on Elpida’s lips, from Illy to the angel — or the other way around?
Amina’s palm was clammy on her hidden knife. Her hand was shaking.
Her demon was gone. She did not feel the urge.
She did not feel the urge.
She did not feel-
A knife for comfort, pressed to skin; a knife for a claw, ready to be bloodied. But on whom, or what?
Surprise! It’s a POV shift! And it’s Amina! And she’s probably not quite what you were expecting, yes? Turns out our quiet little revenant has got some deep currents below her surface, and some … difficult needs to feed. She’s also out of her depth, compared to those from more informed ages. But she’s doing her best. We may stay with her for a few chapters, or jump back and forth over the course of this arc. Depends on a few things about how it unfolds. Hope you’re all enjoying!
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 still trying to somehow put out more chapters ahead, maybe soon!
There’s also a TopWebFiction entry, for voting. Voting makes the story go up the rankings, which helps more people see it!
And thank you so much for reading my story. I dearly hope you are enjoying it as much as I am. More next chapter! More Amina, for now.
duellum – 4.4
Elpida whispered the plan behind a cupped hand, her words shrouded by rainstorm static, with Ilyusha’s back toward the left-hand stairwell.
She doubted that the revenant sniper up in her tangled nest of broken steel and shattered concrete could lip-read through the walls, but Elpida wasn’t going to take that risk. So she pressed the edge of her hand to Ilyusha’s bloodstained hair, and breathed into her ear.
Speed was essential — as were accuracy and visual acuity. One mistake would ruin the plan, and likely end up with both of them splattered across the stairs by an explosive spider-drone. They would lose the element of surprise the moment they moved; the sniper could see through walls.
But if they did it right, the sniper would have to relocate.
Elpida’s breath tickled the tiny hairs on Ilyusha’s neck: “If we move fast enough we can flank her before she can properly readjust. We may be able to force her into a sub-optimal position, then exploit the opening. That depends on the layout of the top floor; if it’s wide open like down here, we have to keep moving fast, to get above her. If it’s close-quarters, we can hunt her. But we must move faster than she expects.”
It’s how she would have cornered Asp, if she’d ever had need to.
Ilyusha’s face was still smeared with blood from her shallow head wound. Grey eyes shined amid sticky crimson, no trace of concussion left. She squinted and gestured with those eyes, indicating the stairwell — the opposite stairwell, on the right, with steps made of wood, and no sniper watching from the apex.
Ilyusha said, “Obvious trap?”
“Yes. That’s the point. She’s likely expecting us to take that stairwell. It’s our only option to nullify her high-ground advantage and flank her through the middle of the structure. It’s probably full of the explosive drones — not just to kill us, but to slow us down, to give her time to relocate. She wants to make us crawl.”
Ilyusha’s lips peeled back from her teeth. She hissed.
Elpida whispered: “But we’re not going to crawl; we’re going to stand tall, and sprint.”
Ilyusha’s angry sneer transformed into a grin. Her exposed red claws clinked against her rotary shotgun and tapped on the heat-damaged surface of the ballistic shield.
“Stand tall!” she barked. “Love it.”
Elpida nodded. “Illy, this is going to be very dangerous. I’m asking you to sprint through a mobile minefield. I’ll take point, with the shield, but if you—”
“I go up front!” Ilyusha snapped. She lifted the shield and tucked it in close. “You’re too big!”
Elpida wanted to argue, but Ilyusha had a point: Elpida was too tall to fit comfortably behind the shield without crouching, which might slow them down. And Ilyusha clearly wanted this: her eyes burned like lightning-lit storm clouds; her petite frame was full of muscular tension, ready to explode upward; her lips peeled back in a toothy grin, framed by drying blood; she was wagging her black-and-red bionic tail.
Ilyusha was the only one of Elpida’s new comrades who she could trust for this task. Even Pira, battle-hardened and experienced, would show too much caution. She needed reckless abandon married to unmatched skill.
She needed Howl.
Ilyusha must have mistaken Elpida’s guilt and grief for hesitation. The heavily augmented girl suddenly hissed: “I can do it! Elps! Take me!”
Elpida’s heart lurched. She swallowed a cough, which made her stomach muscles scream.
The ghost of her most beloved had somehow stolen inside the body of this girl from another era; Elpida did not believe that literally, she knew that she was projecting, seeing what she wanted to see. She was grasping for comfort at an echo inside her own mind.
But here was one last charge alongside Howl, if only in surrogate.
Elpida whispered: “All right. You take point. Shield up. I trust you, Illy. Are you certain you can spot and neutralise those bomb drones?”
Ilyusha nodded. “Fuck yeah I can!”
“Okay.” Elpida made sure her own sniper rifle was strapped securely across her back, then unslung her submachine gun again. “Are you ready?”
“Yeah!” Ilyusha levelled her shotgun and tucked the shield in tight. She bounced one leg up and down on the ball of her foot, vibrating with energy. Elpida reached over with one hand and pulled Ilyusha’s double hoods up, covering her head with the armoured fabric. Ilyusha playfully twisted her head and snapped her teeth at Elpida’s hand. Elpida tried not to think about that; Ilyusha was not Howl.
Elpida hissed, “On three, we break for the stairwell. Move as fast as you can, I’ll match your pace.”
“Joking! Let’s go! Let’s go fuck her up!”
Elpida nodded. “All right. One.”
Ilyusha bounced in time with the count. Her eyes were glued to the stairwell.
Elpida flexed both hands on her submachine gun. Ilyusha rocked forward on the balls of her feet.
They launched from a standing start, slammed through the doorway together, and hit the stairs running.
Ilyusha was perfect — shield in tight, eyes up and roving, shotgun light and muzzle mobile, head swivelling in all directions as she flew up the wooden steps. She was so quick and graceful on her bionic legs. She twisted on the spot with ease, even carrying that bulletproof shield and weighed down by two layers of armoured coat. With each sinuous motion she anchored herself by digging her bionic claws into the wooden stairs, chewing into the material as she leapt and kicked. She covered every corner — and Elpida’s back — in a ceaseless rising whirlwind of motion. Elpida was impressed; she knew Ilyusha was good, she’d witnessed these skills from the moment they’d stalked out of the resurrection chamber together. But to operate like this under such pressure, to execute a difficult plan with no practice, was more than Elpida expected from anybody not of her cadre.
The wooden stairwell was a windowless vertical corridor, identical to its matching plastic and metal twin on the other side, but lacking a tangle of ruins at the top. The steps and railings were made of wood, but the walls were polished brick covered with a layer of clear lacquer. The steps climbed toward double-doors at regular intervals; eight floors, capped with a roof.
Elpida’s wounds were screaming by the time they hit the first landing; her bruised stomach muscles were stiffening and her chest felt like ground glass. She coughed hard, spat dark blood onto the wooden floor, and forced her legs to leap the steps three at a time, sticking close to Ilyusha’s heels.
The first explosive drone showed itself seconds later: a brown smudge dropped from the brick wall on their left.
Elpida shouted, bringing her submachine gun up: “Left! Ten o’clock—”
Ilyusha was quick. She twitched round before Elpida had finished shouting, then blasted the drone and half the wall with a storm of lead pellets from her shotgun. The drone detonated with a meaty crump. Ilyusha whooped, filling the stairwell with echoes. Elpida closed her eyes as brick dust and tiny pieces of shrapnel rained downward.
“Keep moving!” she shouted, already hurling herself up the steps. “Eyes up! Go!”
When the shock wave passed, Elpida opened her eyes; Ilyusha hadn’t even broken her stride. Leaping three or four steps at a time, her face still blood-slick with crimson, grey eyes like a raging storm, grin a white slash in a red face.
Howl’s ghost; an unfair thought, which Elpida did not have time to address.
The sniper threw a dozen more explosive drones at them in the forty one seconds it took to sprint to the top floor; perhaps the devices were automatic, Elpida couldn’t tell. Ilyusha shot them out of the air, blasted them against the walls or the underside of the stairs, and once lifted her shotgun to detonate one of the drones which was wedged low against a step, hiding like a landmine. She scored ten kills, whooping and cheering, bionic feet tearing into the wood to anchor herself against the recoil of her weapon; Elpida scored two, despite the relatively poor accuracy of her submachine gun against such small targets. Ilyusha tanked the explosive backwash on the shield, hurtling forward without pause, cackling at the top of her lungs.
Forty one seconds. They hit the top of the stairwell, a small landing with an open doorway.
Ilyusha was panting through clenched teeth, shield up, eyes darting back and forth for more drones. Elpida was heaving with the pain in her belly and chest, drooling blood.
The doorway led into a jumble of abandoned office space: cubicles, partition walls, support pillars, low desks with swivel chairs and personal terminals. All was draped with dust and shadows.
Eight floors up was higher than the revenant sniper’s position on the opposite side of the building. If Elpida had timed this right, the sniper would still be scrambling to catch up with them, trying to get into a new position to hold them off at range. But a tangle of office space was not a good place to hold an opponent at arm’s length. This was close-quarters work. Shield and shotgun would shine.
Elpida spat to clear her throat. “Perfect. Illy, well done. Good girl. Good.”
Ilyusha’s face lit up with ecstasy. She shouted into the depths of the ruined building: “I’m a good girl, bitch! You fucking hear that!?”
Elpida grunted: “Hold one second. No sense rushing the door. She might have more drones. We go in, straight—”
“Ha!” Ilyusha barked, twisted on the spot with her claws anchoring her feet to the ground, and mashed her bloody lips against Elpida’s mouth.
The kiss was over in a heartbeat. Ilyusha tore away, grinning madly, and plunged forward into the maze of cubicles.
Elpida wasted a precious second on shock. She could taste Ilyusha’s blood, smeared across her lips.
Then she dived into the shadows, following the clicking claws. “Illy! Wait!”
The top floor of the building was all one big room: open-plan, grey-on-grey, divided into small cubicles and a few open areas. The partitions were just shorter than Elpida’s sight-line; they wouldn’t block or deflect a shot from the sniper’s chemical propellant, solid-slug rifle, but they would foul her accuracy. One end of the building, far away to the right, had collapsed into a tangle of concrete and steel; rain drummed on the breached ruins, admitting a trickle of light to draw long grey shadows across the room. The air smelled of petrochemicals and plastic.
Elpida quickly caught up with Ilyusha, right on her heels. Ilyusha grinned back at her, blood smeared in a new way over her lower face.
“Straight for the door!” Elpida hissed as they kept low, behind the partitions. “Catch her as she’s coming in. Watch for more drones, we’re exposed here, we—”
A metallic voice suddenly screeched from the other end of the room, muffled by the partitions and the rain-static in the air: “I see you right there, corpse-shitter! And your little fuck-toy friend, too! Come get me, if you caaaaan!”
The sniper was already up here.
But she hadn’t taken a shot — she’d goaded them, again.
Ilyusha gritted her teeth and raised her head to howl an insult across the maze of cubicle partitions: “I’m gonna take you apart, bitch!”
Elpida hissed, “She’s not set up! Illy, go!”
Elpida’s heart ached all the more when Ilyusha didn’t need a reminder of the plan. The heavily augmented girl twisted on the spot and scurried off to the left, her tail bouncing as she vanished deeper into the maze of partition walls.
Elpida went right. She stayed low, moving fast, submachine gun covering corners.
Splitting up was dangerous, and not only because of the explosive drones: with no short-range comms there was a very real risk of her and Ilyusha shooting each other in confusion. Even the cadre was not immune to the fog of battle.
But the sniper could see them anyway; there was no reason to stay quiet.
Elpida called out, as planned: “Illy!”
Ilyusha shouted back. “Here!” Her voice floated over the partitions. They weren’t too far apart.
“Bitch is close!”
Elpida stopped at the corner of a cubicle and projected her voice deeper into the room: “Hey, zombie! Not gonna shoot me?”
Rainstorm static drummed on the roof, spattering on the concrete and steel at the far end of the room. The revenant sniper did not reply.
The tactic was simple — Ilyusha went one way, Elpida went the other: a pincer movement. Even a very skilled sniper could not keep two opponents at bay at the same time, not in a close-quarters environment with her sight-lines complicated by all these partition walls and pillars, even if she could see through solid matter. Asp, with her perfect technique, would have retreated; this sniper was more bold and less skilled. Whoever she chose not to engage would be able to rush her. Hopefully Ilyusha, with her shield for protection.
But the sniper wasn’t shooting.
Had Elpida completely misunderstood her capabilities? In Kagami’s auspex visor, the revenant’s physical form had been difficult to make out, a jumble of limbs and torso and other parts. Had she fled from the close-quarter confrontation? Or had Elpida made a mistake?
Elpida drew her combat knife from within her coat, holding it in her left hand and bracing her submachine gun on her wrist. She peered around the edge of the cubicle, into a wider space with low benches and deep shadows.
Beneath the omnipresent chemical smell of the rainwater, she caught wind of something else — woody and meaty, like mushrooms.
She called out: “Illy! Sound off!”
“Elpi!” Ilyusha cackled back. She was muffled by the rain-static, further away now, scuttling between pillars and walls as they both looped toward their target.
“I can smell the cunt right here!”
Elpida kept moving. She shot into the open space and paused behind a stout pillar; a clock and an ancient calender were mounted on the white plaster. She raised her voice again. “Come on, zombie! Take a shot already!”
Shadows lay thick inside the cubicles on either side. Rainwater static washed away the sound of her own heartbeat.
Elpida smelled mushrooms again. Stronger. Closer.
“Illy!” she called out. “Illy, abort!”
“What?!” Ilyusha’s shout was all but drowned by the rain.
Elpida ducked left and right, checking around the sides of the pillar. Empty cubicles penned her on all sides: a dozen hiding places for explosive drones or unbreathing zombies. Long shadows loomed in the weak light creeping in through the fallen section of roof. She flexed her hands on her submachine gun and combat knife.
“Abort!” she repeated. “Back to the door! Now!”
“Fuck that!” Ilyusha shouted back.
Elpida had made a mistake; this was a trap.
She had begun this duel by asking herself what one of her own cadre would be capable of: she had compared the revenant sniper against Asp. One of her beloved sisters, Asp, so willowy and graceful, so slow to move and so fast to strike. Asp, with her almond-shaped eyes and long fingers and low, whispery voice. Elpida had compared this sniper with Asp, and found the revenant wanting. How could she not? Her cadre was perfect, the best at what they did. Any tactic which would overcome Asp would surely overcome her inferior.
Get up close and personal. Neutralise her range. Shock her into close quarters combat, where all her skills meant nothing.
But these zombies were not Elpida’s cadre. This was not the green. This was not Telokopolis
“Ilyusha!” she shouted one more time. “Back to the door, right now!”
Elpida burst from behind the pillar, making no effort to stay low, hurrying back along the route she’d taken through the maze of cubicles. She turned quickly as she strode, trying to cover every angle with the muzzle of her weapon, flicking it back and forth between the cubicle openings she raced past. If she could catch back up with Ilyusha they might be able to extract themselves. Analysis of failure was for later. She had to move, stay alert, pull out before—
Crump went an explosion on the far side of the office space. Partitions and shrapnel flew into the air.
“Illy!” Elpida shouted.
A giant spider draped all in black slid out of a cubicle, right on top of her.
Elpida jerked back, finger tightening on the trigger of her weapon; but the spider reached out with three arms, flicker-quick. Pale papery hands grabbed her wrist and elbow, forcing her aim up and to the side with monstrous strength. The third hand got a grip on her trigger finger and snapped the bones backward with an audible crack. Elpida hissed blood through gritted teeth. Painblockers compensated; training took over. Elpida stabbed forward and upward with her combat knife, aiming at the white skin of an exposed throat.
Three more hands caught her thrust. Her knife scored a glancing blow along a naked forearm. Red blood slid from an open wound.
A metallic voice hissed, amused: “Go on corpse-fucker, turn me to shit! Try it!”
Elpida had only a second to realise what she was grappling with: it was the sniper from the battle at the tomb fortifications, the one who had shot at the Silico construct.
She was gigantic: nine feet of loose black robes were wrapped around a hunchbacked frame, topped by a moon-like face and a sheet of lank, white-blonde hair. Her mouth and chin were covered by a metal mask painted with sharp black teeth. Her eyes were dark red, without pupils or irises, bionic lenses flexing and adjusting beneath layers of bio-plastic. Spindly, pale, papery limbs jutted out at odd angles from inside her robes, lacking muscle mass despite her incredible strength — six, then eight, then a dozen limbs. She reeked of that woody, meaty, fungal stench.
Elpida grunted: “I’m not—”
Three pale arms raised a smooth grey oblong with a wide opening at one end. Elpida had never seen a weapon like it before.
The gigantic spider-sniper jammed it under Elpida’s chin, and hissed, voice like metal on metal: “Back to hell, sludge-scum!”
She pulled the trigger.
A pulse of heat passed through Elpida’s face and scalp and—
The sniper’s dark red bionic eyes blinked twice. Before Elpida could kick and struggle, the gravitic weapon was removed from under her chin and the sniper let go of her arms. The giant stepped back, massive and dark in the cramped spaces between the cubicles. Elpida dropped her knife and transferred her submachine gun to her left hand, ignoring the pain from the broken bones in her right index finger. She raised the gun, finger on the trigger.
The sniper was murmuring: “But you look just like—”
Ilyusha came crashing directly through the cubicle partitions.
A whirlwind of claw and shield and lashing tail burst through the flimsy walls and slammed into the sniper, bowling her over in a cloud of black. Spindly limbs went everywhere, reaching for weapons, righting the sniper, trying to deflect the stabbing spike of Ilyusha’s tail.
Ilyusha screamed. “Fucking got you, cunt!”
“Howl,” Elpida breathed.
Ilyusha slammed her ballistic shield into the sniper’s front as the revenant tried to rise, knocking her down into a tangle of broken partitions. One bone-thin pale arm raised a bulky handgun, but Ilyusha’s tail knocked it aside. Ilyusha planted a clawed foot into the black robes, shoved her shotgun in the sniper’s moon-like face, and-
The gigantic hunchbacked sniper had raised one arm between herself and Ilyusha, as if to ward off the killing shot. A set of symbols were burned or tattooed into the mushroom-pale flesh: a row of nine stylised black skulls, some of which had little crosses for eyes or limp tongues hanging from slack jaws. Each skull was struck through with a thick line. At the head of the row was a symbol Elpida recognised, a diagonal line intersected by a crescent: the same symbol which Ilyusha had daubed on the front of her torn t-shirt, with a stick of green camo paint, back in the gravekeeper’s armoury. The same symbol was still visible on Ilyusha’s t-shirt now, through the open front of her double layer of armoured coats.
Ilyusha stared at the symbols. She bared her teeth in frustration, looked back up at the sniper’s deep red eyes, and jerked her shotgun forward.
The gigantic sniper woman said: “You won’t.” Her metallic voice was scratchy with pain. “Mistake. Same side. Come on.”
“Bitch!” Ilyusha screamed.
A metal snort came from beneath the mask. Pale eyebrows flexed above deep red bionic orbs. “No harm done.”
Elpida said: “Illy, is this woman—”
“Fucking stupid cunt!” Ilyusha screamed again. Then she lowered her shotgun and stepped off the sniper.
Elpida kept the giant covered with her submachine gun as the huge woman flowed to her feet — though she could have concealed anything beneath those robes, feet or otherwise. She filled the space, massive and dark, limbs all suddenly tucking back inside her robes.
“No sudden movements,” Elpida said. “You’re going to answer my questions.”
But then Ilyusha reached out with the tip of her shotgun — and gently lowered Elpida’s own weapon.
Ilyusha, sulky and bitter and gritting her teeth, shook her head.
Elpida asked: “We’re letting her go?”
Ilyusha hissed a wordless noise of humiliated frustration.
The sniper ignored Elpida, addressing Ilyusha: “Thought your clever friend here was a Necromancer, comrade. My mistake. Big sorry. Whoops.” Her metal voice did not sound apologetic. She sounded amused.
“Retard fuckhead,” Ilyusha growled. “Should fucking shoot you.”
Elpida said, “Illy, do you know this woman?”
“Serin,” said the giant sniper. “I’ve heard your names. You shout a lot.”
Elpida spoke quickly. “Serin. Fine. Why did you think I was a Necromancer? You mentioned my skin. Explain. Now.”
Serin’s moon-like face, cupped by the metal mask, turned to look at Elpida with dark light burning inside those red machine-eyes. “Seen a corpse-fucker with your skin and hair, once. And all that metal in your head. Never seen that elsewhere. Other metal. Other heads. Not that metal.”
“A Necromancer who looked like me? What was her name? What other—”
“Too long ago.”
“Too long for memory, fresh meat. She got away, from another. Not me. Long time. Didn’t have means then. But worth a shot, at you. No harm, no foul, right?”
“You broke my finger.” Elpida raised her right hand. Her index finger would need to be set, or at least snapped back into position. The pain throbbed down her wrist in sharp waves. She allowed that pain to carry away her disappointment at the lack of information.
But a Necromancer, with her skin and her hair? That could only mean one thing.
Serin shrugged, bony plates adjusting beneath her black robes. “It’ll fix right easy. You’ve got all that raw blue. Which you should drink up, by the way. Not everybody with peepers like mine is hunting big game. Plenty of crows out there looking for an easy score.”
“And you’re not?” Elpida demanded. “You’ve just spent an hour trying to kill us.”
Serin produced her strange grey oblong weapon again — the source of the gravitic signature Kagami had seen in the auspex visor. It seemed to suck in the faint light filtering into the office space from the section of fallen roof. She showed it to them — but mostly to Ilyusha.
“Just luring you close,” said Serin. “For this. But it doesn’t work on zombies. Only corpse-rapists, and worse.”
Ilyusha hissed: “Moron shit eater dick face.”
Elpida shook her head. “Ilyusha, we’re letting this woman go? I need to understand.”
Ilyusha snorted. “Hunting reptiles. Not gonna eat us. Just fucking stupid.”
“Reptiles? I don’t understand.”
Serin raised her tattooed arm again, showing off those crossed-out black skulls. “I hunt the death cult. Mostly.”
Elpida nodded. “I’ve seen that symbol before, a black skull, painted on the chest of a suit of power-armour.”
The sniper’s pale eyebrows shot upward. “Where? A friend?”
“Shot her,” Ilyusha snapped, pointing at Elpida. “With a coilgun. Boom! Fucked. Elpi’s cool, she’s one of us. Fuck off!”
“Huh,” Serin grunted. “Well done, fresh meat who isn’t a Necromancer. Hold onto your little comrade there, she’ll teach you how not to become a monster.”
Ilyusha snorted: “Fuck you, retard. Use your eyes next time.”
“Thank you, little comrade.”
Elpida was having trouble keeping up with this. Her wounds and bruises ached. There were undercurrents of allegiance and identification here that she did not yet know. But the fight was over. The fight had been mistaken in the first place, the product of an overzealous hunter.
She said, “So this was a case of mistaken identity? All this violence was for nothing?”
Serin shrugged again. Too many joints moved beneath her robes, massive shapes hidden in the black. She reeked of fungal spores and mushroom flesh. “Fun, wasn’t it?”
Ilyusha said, “Boring shit. You shoot like you’re blind. Cunt.”
Elpida couldn’t see any other way to end this. Her mind was already joining the dots — the skull symbols, the matching insignia she’d seen on that pale leather flag during the fight to escape the tomb pyramid, and Ilyusha’s apparent yet offended allegiance with this woman. She said, “You promise to leave us alone now? Illy, can we trust her to go? This isn’t a trap or a trick?”
Serin answered first: “No reason to hunt you more. You’re no Necromancer. Oopsie.”
Ilyusha looked like she wanted to rip the sniper’s face off, but she hissed in frustration. “Our side. Don’t shoot, I guess. Fuck-head.”
Elpida locked eyes with Serin for a long moment, then said, “Who needs enemies when you have allies like these.”
The deep red bionic eyes scrunched up at the corners: a grin, hidden behind the metal mask.
That scratching voice hissed over the rain static: “I’m not your ally, fresh meat. But if you keep killing death’s heads, you’re on the right track. Watch your shadows, I’ll be around.”
And with that the spindly giant turned and flowed away, vanishing amid the tangle of cubicles and shadows. She showed no fear of being shot in the back. Ilyusha spat on the ground as she left, but there was little anger in the gesture. Elpida grimaced at her own broken finger. She tried to catch Ilyusha’s flat grey eyes.
“Illy, none of that was your fault.”
“I need an explanation, intel, anything. I realise why we didn’t kill that woman — she confirmed I’m not a Necromancer. But, death’s heads? Her tattoos? That symbol on your t-shirt? Please. If we have potential allies here, that’s a good thing. But I need to know.”
Ilyusha avoided her gaze, embarrassed or ashamed. Her shotgun pointed at the floor. Her tail hung limp.
“Even the good are made bloodthirsty,” she said — and it was that other voice, that voice she had used to plead for continued kindness, when her clawed hand had touched Elpida’s face.
Elpida reached over and took her shoulder, gently.
Ilyusha’s head snapped up, eyes burning bright once again. Her tail flicked the air. She pulled a sardonic grin. “Stupid shit. S’go back to the others, yeah?”
Elpida nodded. “I’m with you, Illy.”
I’m with Ilyusha on this one. That revenant was very irresponsible. Then again, there’s worse things than zombies walking these wastes; perhaps hunting them makes one paranoid. Do you think this has brought Ilyusha and Elpida closer together? Or is Illy too mortified by the actions of her ‘ally’?
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 still trying to somehow put out more chapters ahead, maybe soon! If I can get to two, or three, that would be great, so I’m trying!
There’s also a TopWebFiction entry, for voting. Voting makes the story go up the rankings, which helps more people see it!
Thank you for reading! This arc has been a blast, I’ve enjoyed it so much. Next week, it’s onto arc 5, and something very, very different … you’ll see!
duellum – 4.3
Contemplation of grief
“Ilyusha! Illy! Illy, respond!”
Elpida shouted across the road, over the sniper’s mocking laugh and the echoes of the explosion. Greasy rain swallowed her words, drumming on her hood, pounding on the asphalt, swirling around her boots as it flowed down the concrete slope, carrying away the deformed bullet which had failed to penetrate her armoured coat.
She coughed and spat blood into the water — bright and fresh: internal bleeding from the massive bullet-impact bruise spreading across her abdomen.
Ilyusha did not respond.
The metallic voice howled through the rain once again, but this time it was muffled behind brick and steel, funnelled in the wrong direction, unfocused: “Your fresh meat was too heavy on her feet! Come pick her up, Necromancer!”
Elpida’s body acted on the available information before her conscious mind caught up.
She slung the rifle over her shoulder, shot to her feet, and sprinted out onto the ancient asphalt of the road. Her bruised stomach muscles and slow-healing chest wounds lit up with agony; painblockers and adrenaline flooded her bloodstream, her gene-tweaked biochemistry doing its best to keep her moving. From behind, back in the bunker, somebody shouted her name: “Elpi!”
Probably Vicky, but there was no time to respond.
Elpida’s boots splashed through dancing puddles of gritty water. Raindrops lashed her face. She vaulted the lane divider in the middle of the road; landing sent a jagged spike of pain up through her guts. She turned a stumble into a lunge, then hauled herself toward the shadow of the ruined buildings.
Compared to Ilyusha, Elpida was a large, slow-moving target, with little protection, and no covering fire.
But the sniper didn’t shoot.
It wasn’t until she slammed into the cover of the ruined buildings that Elpida’s conscious mind caught up with her training: the sniper’s metallic voice had been muffled, wavering, projected the wrong way — in motion. The sniper was either relocating to a new spot, or descending through the structure to deal with Ilyusha. That gave Elpida an opening. A risky one, yes, but one of her comrades was in trouble, perhaps injured, perhaps about to be killed. Her training, even tattered and torn, had handed her the correct response.
A calculated risk. Old Lady Nunnus would have scolded her for this one.
“You are the Commander, not a sacrificial pawn. Yes, every one of you girls is more than capable of deciding for herself, I bloody well know that. We all learned that early enough. You’re not raw Legion recruits picking your noses and waiting for the drill sergeant. But if you go down, the others will stop at nothing to recover their leader. If you love your sisters as they love you, do not put yourself at unnecessary risk.”
Elpida wasn’t Commander of anything now. And she wasn’t letting any comrade die before she did.
Sprinting across the road had aggravated the massive deep-tissue bruise on her abdomen; painblockers could dull the response, but they couldn’t stop her drooling blood into the puddles of rainwater. Hissing through her teeth with convulsive pain, pressing herself against a filthy concrete wall for cover, raindrops pummelling her hood and shoulders, Elpida had to make a conscious choice: stop breathing. She did not need to breathe, or pant, or wheeze. She was not alive, not really.
She swallowed blood. Tasted petrochemicals and chlorine and acid in the rainwater. After a few seconds, the pain ebbed down to a manageable level.
Elpida pulled her submachine gun up, pressed the stock to her shoulder, and slipped in through an empty doorway of tarnished steel.
The building the sniper had selected as a vantage point was some kind of light commercial or office space: the ground floor was a wide area of once-white tiles, with a reception desk, several banks of empty lockers along one wall, some kind of lathe-like machine along the other, and some fallen concrete at the far end. The ruin was thick with shadows, hissing with rain like sand on a drum. Empty doorways led to open stairwells on both left and right, climbing upward: the stairs on the left were scuffed blue polymer with metal railings, but the steps on the right were made of wood. Elpida allowed herself a single split-second of wonder. Walking on wood? Obscene.
On the left, one flight up on a little corner-landing, a wide area of stairs and wall was blackened with fresh soot: the aftermath of a small explosive device.
A tangle of bionic limbs and armoured coats lay in a heap.
Elpida moved quickly, submachine gun up, watching her feet for tripwires or mines or anything else out of place, eyes on the corners for mounted weapons or cameras or any sign of movement. She did not like stepping into the stairwell; it went up perhaps five or six floors before terminating in a tangle of bent steel and crumbled concrete — a vertical killing ground topped by a sniper’s nest. She kept her armoured hood up, covering the corners with her submachine gun. Her footsteps echoed upward. Rainwater dripped from her coat.
When she reached the corner landing, Elpida tore her eyes away from the vertical shaft of the stairwell and crouched next to the tangle of coats, fearing the worst. She tried to shield Ilyusha’s body with her own, in case the sniper was watching from above.
She hissed: “Ilyusha? Ilyusha, respond. Illy!”
Elpida pulled back a corner of armoured coat: Ilyusha’s face appeared from within the tangle. Dazed, dirty, disoriented, face smeared with blood from a gash on her scalp, but very much alive and conscious. Ilyusha cracked a grin and gurgled again. Elpida realised she was trying to laugh.
Elpida said: “We have to move. Can you stand?”
“Got me with a fucking cunt, bomb shit.” Ilyusha slurred. Her eyes wavered, one pupil larger than the other. Concussion. “Meant to be our thing. Thirteen thing. Fucking reptile. Fuck.”
Ilyusha squirmed beneath the coats. Elpida tried to reach out and hold her still, but Ilyusha shoved and kicked free a large piece of soot-blackened, heat-warped, bulletproof polymer: the ballistic shield. The shield had taken the brunt of the explosion. Ilyusha must have had enough sense to keep the shield to her front. Probably saved her life.
Elpida took all this in with a glance, then hissed: “We need to get out of this stairwell and into cover. The sniper is right above us. Can you stand—”
A metallic screech echoed downward, turning the stairwell into a giant megaphone: “I see you, bone fucker! Come on up!”
Elpida grabbed the ballistic shield just in time.
As she jerked it upward to shelter herself and Ilyusha, a single round ricocheted off the bulletproof surface. The impact juddered down her arm and into her shoulder, vibrating through the wounds in her chest and the bruise on her stomach. Elpida grunted with pain and effort. The sniper howled and cackled, deafening in the echo-filled stairwell. She fired again — and again — and again — slamming the bulletproof shield with small calibre rounds, forcing Elpida down to cover Ilyusha.
“Come on, necrophiliac!” she screamed. “You can do better than that!”
Elpida hissed: “Ilyusha, grab me! Grab on, I can’t do this with one arm.”
Ilyusha obeyed. From inside the tangle of coats she extended all four black-and-red bionic limbs to grip Elpida’s shoulders and wrap around her waist. Sharp red claws dug into Elpida’s flesh; Ilyusha clung to her front like an infant marsupial. Elpida crawled backward down the steps. Ilyusha’s bionic tail dragged behind, limp and loose. The sniper fired again and again, pounding on the shield, howling with laughter. She landed two additional rounds on Ilyusha’s tail, the only unprotected body part. Luckily the bullets bounced off with a resonant ping.
Stomach muscles screaming, drooling blood through gritted teeth, Elpida dragged Ilyusha back out of the stairwell.
She dropped the ballistic shield on the dirty white tiles and collapsed onto her side. Ilyusha remained attached to her front for over a minute, panting softly, chewing on Elpida’s collarbone. Elpida allowed it.
Eventually Ilyusha unclenched her limbs. Elpida propped her up against a wall and examined her for wounds, running her hands over Ilyusha’s non-augmetic flesh, down her torso and up to her throat. Luckily Ilyusha still had her rotary shotgun cradled in her lap, secured around her neck with a canvas strap. Elpida checked her pulse, stared into her flat grey eyes, and took a look at the head wound — shallow, barely a graze, clotting fast. The blood smeared down Ilyusha’s face made it look much worse.
“You’re clear,” Elpida said. She sat back on her haunches and eyed the stairwell.
Ilyusha grunted: “No.” She reached out and grabbed a corner of Elpida’s coat in one limp hand.
“No? No what?”
“No go. Don’t go.” Ilyusha’s eyes were like a dead sky before a storm, leaden and dark.
“Ilyusha — Illy, I’m not going anywhere while you have a concussion. You’ve not got any wounds except that gash on your head, and that’s visibly better already. Nanomachines, I suppose. But you need to sit still.”
Ilyusha grunted and closed her eyes. “Fucked up.”
“We all make mistakes,” Elpida said. “And you did the right thing, you kept the shield up, at your front. Well done. I’m glad you did.”
Ilyusha grumbled. She kept blinking as if trying to clear her vision.
Elpida asked: “What was it? A tripwire? Did you see?”
“Lil’ robot bomb cunt. Creeping around.”
Elpida froze. She turned slowly and looked toward the shadowy reception area, the banks of lockers, the tumbled concrete. Tripwires and traps she could manage with her eyes and ears; she could even disarm several types of anti-personnel mine if she had to. But semi-autonomous mobile robotic explosives were beyond her abilities, not without more equipment. She needed scanner devices, bomb-sniffers, ablative drones — and most of all she needed a hardshell. She stared into every dark corner, one hand on her weapon.
“Ilyusha. What did it look like?”
“Brown spider thingy.”
“Hand? Ish? Little piss head fuck.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
Ilyusha snorted: “Fucked up.”
Elpida turned back to her, but kept her attention on her own peripheral vision. Ilyusha looked sad. Elpida said, “It’s not your fault, it’s mine. I didn’t predict she might have something like this. Drones are difficult to deal with, even with a bomb team and the right tools. You didn’t have either.”
Elpida nodded. She didn’t need to ask who Ilyusha was referring to. “She’s playing with us. I don’t know why.”
“Maybe. She must know I’m not a Necromancer. It makes no sense. Either she’s trying to wind us up, or … ”
Elpida trailed off; through the wall of rain beyond the building’s entrance she heard a name on the wind. Her name.
She got to her feet. Ilyusha didn’t want to let go of her coat, but Elpida gently peeled her claws open and whispered that she wasn’t going far. Ilyusha didn’t fight. Elpida quickly crossed to the open doorway, staring out into the rain, across the uneven asphalt. The bunker was a low grey hump on the far side.
“—pida! Elpida! Elpi!”
It was Vicky, out of sight.
Elpida cupped her hands around her mouth and called back: “We’re okay! Illy is okay! Don’t expose yourselves! Vicky, stay hidden! Head down!”
Raindrop static filled the silence. Then Vicky shouted back: “Okay!”
A metallic screech rang out from above. The sniper cackled into the rain, then said, “Expose yourself all you like, freshies! Come save your corpse-fucker bitch! Haahaaaa!”
Vicky and Kagami were smart enough not to respond. Elpida hoped they were comforting Amina, too. They really needed long-range comms; even short range would make a difference. She wondered if such things were available in this wasteland.
She turned away from the open doorway and crept back toward the stairwell, bringing her submachine gun up, eyes alert for any sign of skittering motion.
She hissed: “Illy, I’m going to—”
“No!” Ilyusha spat.
The heavily augmented girl lurched to her feet. She staggered and swayed, naked claws scraping across the tile floor. She knocked her revolver-shotgun against the wall so hard that Elpida flinched, anticipating an accidental discharge. But the shotgun was made of sterner stuff; the mechanism didn’t fail. Ilyusha shook her head, blinking her eyes hard as she struggled to focus on Elpida. She wobbled to one side, shotgun pointed at nothing, double layers of coats hanging from her narrow shoulders.
Elpida put out one hand to steady her. “Illy, wait. You need to recover—”
“I can go!” Ilyusha shouted. She reached out and wrapped one hand around Elpida’s wrist, claws going snick-snack as they flicked out and dug into the fabric of Elpida’s coat. She hung on and pulled herself upright, then screwed her eyes shut, panting with effort. “I can!”
Elpida pitched her voice calm but firm; she’d seen this before, on the faces of her clade-sisters: a devotion to others which often defied good sense. “Illy. Illy, open your eyes and look at me.”
Ilyusha shook her head, trying to clear a blockage. “Nuurrrh—”
“Ilyusha,” Elpida ordered. “Look at me.”
Ilyusha looked, molten grey eyes in a face smeared with drying blood.
“Illy, I’m not going up there without you. I’m not taking on a sniper in a prepared position, especially not when she’s got mobile drones with explosives. The more pairs of eyes we have for that task, the better our chances of survival. But you are concussed. I need you, Ilyusha — which means I need you clear and sharp. I am ordering you to sit down and recover.”
Ilyusha squinted, sullen and sulky. Her red-clawed fingers tightened on Elpida’s wrist.
Elpida continued. “I’m not going to expose myself to her line of fire. I’m going to shout up the stairwell, without entering it. She’s playing mind-games with us. I’m answering her move.”
Ilyusha hissed through clenched teeth. She did not let go.
Elpida realised that Ilyusha did not believe her.
Elpida’s heart ached with sudden grief, pinned by those smouldering grey eyes. She had never needed to worry about whether her clade-sisters in the cadre believed her, trusted her, and placed their faith in her decisions. She had been Commander because the cadre had chosen to follow her — but not without question, never without question. Elpida was Commander because she listened to her sisters — to their doubts, their questions, their needs, right back to that very first time they had worked together. The cadre believed in her decisions because she believed in them; she was the cadre, and the cadre was her.
Howl was not always the first to question, nor always the most insistent. But without fail she was always the most personal, the closest up in Elpida’s face, the one who wouldn’t let it drop even in private, even after sex.
Ilyusha did not look like Howl: the only resemblance was physical size, her petite frame.
But this attitude, the look in those eyes — I won’t let you go alone because I don’t believe you — it excavated Elpida’s heart.
Grief was an open wound, bleeding into sodden bandages. Too close, too soon, too raw. But Elpida took a deep breath and packed it away beneath layers of gauze and painblockers and training. They had a task to complete. She was designed for carrying on. She would think about this later.
“Illy,” she said. Some of her grief edged into her voice. “I’m not going up there without you. I would not leave you alone with explosive drones around. Even though I hardly know you.”
Ilyusha’s grip finally slackened. She let go and staggered sideways, then allowed Elpida to help her sit down. Ilyusha clutched her shotgun and let her head roll back against the wall. She hissed a wordless noise of frustration.
Elpida said: “I’m going to shout up to the sniper. I’m going less than a dozen feet away from you. You’ll hear every word. If you see a drone—”
“Shout or shoot, yaaaaah.”
Elpida smiled for her, then reached down and patted Ilyusha on the head, stroking her bloody hair, avoiding the scalp wound. “Good girl. I’ll be right back.”
Ilyusha’s tail flicked back and forth over the dirty tiles. Elpida stood up and stepped away.
The doorway to the stairwell was wide enough for Elpida to project her voice upward without crossing the threshold and into the revenant’s line of fire. She picked up the ballistic shield anyway, in case of scuttling bombs or unexpected surprises. She lifted the shield to cover her front, stepped up to the door, and shouted.
“What do you want, zombie?”
A moment of rain-static against the walls and roof. Echoing silence. Elpida’s heart jerked. She coughed.
Then: “You, Necromancer!” came the screeching reply, echoing down the stairwell, twisting the strange voice.
Elpida shouted back up: “You must know I’m not a Necromancer. You’re goading me. Why bother?”
A single laugh, followed by: “Your freshies don’t know, but I do! I’m gonna eat your guts, bone-fucker! Come on, come get scrambled! You know you gotta try, or I’ll come eat your brains in your sleep!”
Elpida couldn’t decide if the revenant sniper really believed what she was saying. The taunting served little purpose now; they were already inside the building, committed to removing her, perhaps killing her. Bait or not, they had taken the decision. Where did this lead? Elpida couldn’t figure it out, not unless the sniper really believed she was talking to a Necromancer — and had a way to kill a Necromancer.
Elpida called upward again: “What makes you think I’m a Necromancer? Is it the neural lace in my head? I have a cranial implant, from life, metal inside my skull, for communication. Is that it?”
“It’s written on your skiiiiiin!”
The colour of Elpida’s skin — copper-brown — was artificially selected, along with her white hair and the purple tint of her irises. Same as the rest of the cadre. An artificial phenotype found nowhere else in Telokopolis, so they would never be mistaken as natural born human beings.
Elpida shouted up the stairwell: “You’ve seen somebody with my skin and hair colour before? Somebody with my phenotype? You’ve seen a revenant like me?”
“You’re no zombie, corpse-fucker!”
“Please! You’ve seen somebody like me before?”
The sniper just cackled and hurled more howling insults down the stairwell shaft. Elpida realised she’d made a tactical mistake; even if the sniper didn’t mean what Elpida assumed, the change in Elpida’s tone of voice had handed the sniper fresh bait, a new tool with which to goad and irritate. Elpida forced herself to turn away from the stairwell and walk back to Ilyusha, no matter what information the sniper may have.
Ilyusha snorted, “Biiitch.”
“Yes,” Elpida agreed.
She placed the shield on the floor and sat down cross-legged next to Ilyusha, so they could both watch the room for bomb drones. Ilyusha’s eyes were like cold lead — and still uneven. Still concussed. Ilyusha stared back. They were going to have to sit there for a few minutes, at least.
Elpida couldn’t take it, that sullen watching — so very Howl. Post-coital Howl, curled up and sulky, paradoxically grumpy, usually because her mind was working on some special problem, unknotted by the release of sex. Elpida could not endure that look on Ilyusha’s face, even if it had a totally different cause and meaning. She had to look away.
Many of the popular religions in Telokopolis had believed in reincarnation; some of the earliest records in the archives even spoke of a dominant religion during the city’s first thousand years, a religion which preached of the reincarnation and inevitable reunion of lovers separated by death. Elpida had never spent much time thinking about that. The cadre had little in the way of spiritual education, even less in long-dead cults. But as the rain-static drummed and Elpida strained her eyes for motion and Ilyusha sat there, small and sour and in some ways too familiar, Elpida’s mind wandered toward impossible hope.
In a way, were they not all reincarnated?
Training reasserted itself quickly. Elpida needed to keep her mind occupied. Ilyusha was not Howl. Without turning to look at Ilyusha again, she said: “Illy, do you mind if I ask where — or when — you’re—”
Needle points touched Elpida’s cheek. She froze.
Ilyusha pressed a bionic hand to Elpida’s jaw, cheekbone, and nose. Black augmetic, trimmed in red, pressed against coppery skin. Ilyusha’s hand was surprisingly warm.
Elpida moved only her eyes. Ilyusha was staring up at her with a relaxed and dreamlike expression. Her pupils were the same size.
“Illy?” Elpida hissed. Her heart was racing. “Illy?”
Ilyusha said, “You’re being very kind to her. Long time since that. Keep doing that, please.”
She sounded so sad.
Without another word, Ilyusha exploded to her feet. A grin ripped across her face. A clawed foot slammed into the tiles. Her shotgun came up in both hands, went clunk-click, and pointed outward at the room, at—
A spidery brown blob on the ceiling, scuttling silently toward them.
“Fuck you!” Ilyusha yelled.
She pulled the trigger, painting ceiling and spider and half the wall with a wide spread of shot. Elpida scrambled for the ballistic shield, but Ilyusha’s shot landed true. The tiny spider-drone was knocked off the ceiling and blasted toward the rear of the room. It detonated with a low crump. Elpida ducked behind the shield and tried to drag Ilyusha down too, but the heavily augmented girl stood tall, laughing, washed by the back-blast of tiny pieces of concrete debris.
“Got you, bitch! Smart now!” she shouted. “Try again, cunt!”
Elpida stood up, one hand on Ilyusha’s shoulder. “Well done. Well done, Good shot.”
“Good girl,” Ilyusha demanded.
“Good girl, yes. Good eyes, too. Think you can keep spotting them like that?”
Ilyusha nodded, cycling another round into her weapon. Her eyes were clear, her balance was perfect, her tail was wagging.
“Good,” Elpida said. “Then I’ve got a plan. We’re going up.”
Ilyusha is a good girl. A good girl with good aim and a shotgun. And she really likes Elpida. Zombies, bonding in combat, whoever would have guessed it? I hope you’re all enjoying this, dear readers, because I am having so much fun with the story. I know these extended fights/action sequences tend to take a while when paced like this, but I hope it’s worth every moment.
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 3k words. Please, do feel free to wait until there’s plenty more to read! I’m still trying to somehow put out more chapters ahead, maybe soon! If I can get to two, or three, that would be great, so I’m trying!
There’s also a TopWebFiction entry, for voting. Voting makes the story go up the rankings, which helps more people see it!
Thank you so much for reading my little story! Next week, it’s the last chapter of arc 4. Let’s hope Elpida’s plan is a good one.
duellum – 4.2
None this chapter.
That word again, screeching out from between the rotten tooth-stubs of this city-corpse, half-drowned in the steady static hiss of greasy, gritty raindrops, pattering on asphalt and pooling in concrete and drumming on the hood of Elpida’s armoured coat.
Echoes faded; static filled the silence.
The mysterious revenant — the sniper up in a building on the other side of the ancient road — had nothing more to say.
Elpida put her eye to the scope of her rifle again, to watch the buildings across the road for any sign of motion. Twisted steel and slick-wet brick were blurred by a veil of water. Rain dripped from the rim of her hood. Droplets plinked on the barrel of the gun.
This was the second time Elpida had been accused of Necromancy. Was this a goad, a bluff, an insult intended to draw her out? Or was it simply a mistake? Had the sniper seen her turn and whisper to the distant mountain range of the graveworm? If she could see through walls, why not flesh?
Or did the revenant sniper know something Elpida did not?
Elpida looked over her right shoulder, back toward the open door of the bunker. Ilyusha squatted just inside the doorway, sheltering from the rain, bionic limbs all sharp red angles. She cradled her rotary shotgun close to her chest, barrel pointing across the concrete basin to cover Elpida’s back. The heavily augmented girl pulled a grit-toothed sneer of disapproval; she could hear every word shouted back and forth across the road. Elpida signalled with one hand: hold steady. Ilyusha huffed and tossed her head, but she stayed put.
Elpida hissed, “Ask Kagami: is she moving?”
Ilyusha ducked back into the doorway, then reappeared a moment later. She shook her head. Elpida mouthed: “Thank you.”
Back to the concrete slope, the shattered road, and the buildings like broken fingers. Elpida called out again, projecting her voice through the rain: “What do you mean, ‘sport’? Are you hunting us?”
No reply. Just the rain.
Elpida coughed once, tasted blood, and took another shot: “Why do you think I’m a Necromancer?”
Elpida carried on. “If I was a Necromancer, I could just walk through your bullets, right? Why would I hide from you?”
Raindrops drummed. Filthy fluid flowed down concrete gutters. Petrochemical stench filled Elpida’s aching lungs. Grit gathered on her exposed hands. Water sluiced from her hood. She thought once again of Asp, most willowy and delicate of her cadre. Asp was able to still herself like a pool of dark water; Asp was — no, Elpida reminded herself with a throb of pain in her chest: Asp was dead.
Asp had been an expert at striking from stillness. Asp could go from nothing to everything all at once, from a standing start to an explosion of violence. Asp had not been the most skilled at close quarters combat, nor the most feared on the sparring floor mats, and Elpida knew a few of her more intimate weaknesses; but if Elpida had needed somebody to sit and endure the tension of waiting, of stillness and silence, without surrender to any unplanned reaction, without the lure of whim or wit, she would have chosen Asp.
The taciturn sniper was not Asp; nor was she Velvet, or Dusk. Elpida could never have bested Asp in long-distance single combat. None of her tricks would have worked. But as raindrops drummed and no answer came, Elpida asked herself what Asp would do.
Asp would stay still.
Elpida took one hand off her rifle and pressed her fingers against the bunker’s exterior wall; the concrete was cold and wet. She estimated the angles and distances. Then, very quickly, she reached up and tapped the highest point she could touch without rising from a crouch.
The sniper’s bullet slammed into the concrete in a shower of cold grit; Elpida had already whipped her hand back down. The sniper’s aim was perfect; the bullet would have shattered the bones of Elpida’s palm.
She whispered to herself: “Thank you, sister. Thank you, Asp. I love you.”
Then she put her eye to the rifle’s scope, aimed at a piece of brick two floors above the revenant’s position, and squeezed the trigger. Her shot rang out with a high-pitched crack; a puff of pulverised brick-dust was swallowed by the rain.
Before the echoes of the shot faded away, without raising her eye from the scope, while her hands worked the bolt to load another round, Elpida called out.
“You know something we don’t, zombie?”
She took another shot. Her second bullet hit a spear of steel rebar poking from a piece of ancient concrete. Crack-ping went the distant ricochet.
Elpida shouted across the road: “How many of us do you see, zombie? Three plus one Necromancer? Or is it four? Or six? Are you certain you see all of us?”
She squeezed the trigger again, aiming between the buildings, shooting at open air. The gunshot echoed off into the rain storm.
“Don’t play dumb with me, zombie,” Elpida called. “I said I would hunt you. You just wait right where you are.”
Another shot; another crack off the concrete; another clack-clack of the bolt in her hands.
A reply finally screeched back, like metal on rock: “Stand up, then!”
Elpida raised her eye from the scope. “Why?”
“Prove you’re no bone fucker! I’ll put one in your leg!”
Elpida suppressed a sigh, then coughed hard, three times; all that shouting made her lungs burn, still healing from the Silico’s coilgun rounds. It felt like shards of molten glass were working their way into her bloodstream by way of her alveoli. She whispered: “Nice try.”
“Ehhhh?” the revenant screeched. “What’s that? Too chicken-shit? Afraid to be proved wrong? Where’s all your big talk about hunting me? Ha! Come on! Come out! Prove you’re one of us and not some corpse-raping blob! Come ooooooon! Come ouuuuut!”
Elpida said nothing as the shout trailed off. She waited. She counted the seconds inside her head.
At thirty seven seconds, Ilyusha hissed for Elpida’s attention: “Bitch is moving!” She ducked back into the doorway again, then reappeared quickly. “Going up!”
Elpida smiled. Thirty seven seconds; this sniper was no Asp.
She lowered her own rifle, slipped around the corner of the bunker, and hurried back to the doorway. Ilyusha waited with a sour frown on her pale little face, grey eyes flat like cold lead. Elpida squatted just inside the door frame and shook her hood off, coat dripping water onto the concrete steps. Kagami was sitting a few steps further down, half in the darkness, frowning up at the concrete walls through the auspex visor. Vicky was keeping Amina company in the far corner. The air beyond the bunker was a wall of rain.
Kagami snapped, “So?”
Elpida asked: “Where’s she going?”
“Along to the right.” Kagami raised a hand, tracing lines only she could see. “Slowly. Not far. Oh, there she goes, up one floor. That’s a metal railing. Must be some intact stairs. There, she stopped. Halfway to another floor. A stairwell or something. I see glass, brick, a crack in the wall. Nice hidey hole. Clever. Do we have a plan, then, or are we just flailing?”
Ilyusha hissed, “Blow her the fuck up!”
Elpida spoke quickly. She made sure to glance down at Vicky and Amina too. “She was trying to goad me into taking a risky shot, but she’s too impatient to do it properly. That works in our favour, we can use that. But we’re still in a very bad position. She can see through walls, which neutralises all the usual tactics for this kind of engagement. She will see me coming, no matter how well I conceal myself or how slowly I move into position. She can even see us having this conversation. She will know we’re planning something. She’s also a very quick and accurate shot. I’m going to have to surprise her.”
Kagami said, “Itchy trigger finger, right, right. Get her to, what, jump the gun? Ha.”
From down in the bunker room, Vicky said: “We’re in really big trouble, aren’t we?”
Elpida refused to confirm that. She said, “There’s a way to deal with this, but it’s extremely risky. We have one attempt and we have to get it right.”
Kagami huffed. “Why not just blow her up with the coilgun?” She gestured down at the receiver and power-tank on the floor of the bunker room, bulky and angular in the glow-stick light. “Who cares what cover she has when you’re pointing that at her?”
“She’ll see it the moment we activate the power-tank.”
“Kagami,” Elpida said, firmly. “We don’t want to provoke her into using that gravitic weapon against this bunker. If we threaten her life then she may decide the nanomachines are not worth the trouble; she may pull the trigger. We need to corner her without her realising. We need to present her with a close-range threat to occupy her attention.”
Elpida did not voice her other suspicion, because she didn’t want to spook her comrades: it was possible the mysterious revenant really was playing with them, for sport. Using the coilgun might break the rules of her private game.
Kagami hissed in frustration. “Great. Frozen conflict bullshit. Oh, there are so many fucking ways this can go wrong. Can’t we just make her leave?”
Ilyusha grunted, “Called us necromancers. Cunt fuck shit-eater.”
Elpida said, “She doesn’t really believe that. It’s bait, to make us angry. Ilyusha, don’t let it get to you. That’s what she wants.”
Ilyusha snorted and looked out into the rain. Her exposed red claws clicked against the metal of her shotgun. Her black-and-red bionic tail tapped at the wall.
“Ilyusha,” Elpida said. “I can’t dislodge this sniper by myself. This is a two person job. It’s incredibly dangerous, one of us is likely to get shot; in fact, I’m counting on that. With any luck the armour in these coats will stop a round or two, but I don’t know what kind of firearm she’s using. You’re the only one fast enough to cross that road in the opening I can make — but I am asking you, not ordering you. Will you help me?”
Ilyusha turned her eyes back to Elpida, head tilting sideways, mouth a funny smirk. She nudged Elpida on the shoulder, a playful little shove. Elpida’s heart lurched at that gesture. She swallowed a cough.
Ilyusha said: “In!”
Elpida nodded. “Ilyusha — Illy, thank you. Pira mentioned that you’re currently regenerating more rapidly than the rest of us, because of the nanomachines you drank back in the tomb. Is that still correct?”
Elpida continued. “Okay, I want you to take two spare coats and drape them over yourself. Take a ballistic shield, too.” Ilyusha opened her mouth to complain, so Elpida quickly said: “No arguments. If I get shot and I can’t walk, it doesn’t matter. If you get shot and downed, the plan is over. I need you mobile. I need you across that road. It’s very likely that the kill will be yours.”
Vicky’s voice floated up from the cramped gloom: “Kill?”
“We have to,” said Elpida. She looked down into the bunker and met Vicky’s eyes: a dark frown in the anemic glow-stick illumination. Amina was up on her feet now, draped with a coat, clutching Vicky’s good hand in her own small, brown fist. Elpida added: “Unless she backs down and leaves. The threat to Pira and Atyle as they return is too much. We may have to kill her, yes.” Elpida turned back to Ilyusha, reached out, and took Ilyusha’s black-red bionic shoulder. “The plan is simple — you go to where I was, to the corner of the bunker. You stay low, beneath her line of sight. Crawl forward up the slope. Get as close to the road as you can. Then you wait. I’ll go to the opposite corner and set up the shot.”
Vicky said: “Hey, Elpi—”
“I know, it’s not a good angle for a shot. It’s not meant to be good.”
Vicky sighed. She sounded almost angry. “You’re going to use yourself as bait. I don’t like that. I really don’t like that.”
“We don’t have a choice. And the coat will probably stop a bullet—”
“Probably?” Vicky scoffed. “And what if she shoots you in the face, Elpi? Isn’t that how to kill one of us? Destroy enough brain matter? Boom, head-shot, and you’re gone.”
Amina was wide-eyed with incomprehension and fear. Kagami cleared her throat and said, “Knuckle-dragger has a point.”
Elpida said, “That’s what I’m counting on.”
Vicky opened her mouth to argue, but then she stopped and frowned.
“Trust me,” said Elpida. “We have to mislead her with an irresistible target.” Then she turned back to Ilyusha. “Illy, when you hear a shot — from either me or her, it doesn’t matter which — you cross that street as fast as possible, get into the building with her. Don’t look back for me, don’t turn around if I’m hit, just sprint. If she shouts anything, ignore her. Once you’re in there … ”
Elpida trailed off. Ilyusha knew what to do. The heavily augmented girl grinned wide, clicked her tongue, and made her rotary shotgun go cluck-clunk.
“Get her fucked,” Ilyusha growled.
“Right.” Elpida squeezed her shoulder. “If everything goes to plan, I’ll be right behind you, once she’s distracted. If I’m not, then be careful in there. She may have set up traps, tripwires, mines, something to cover her rear. Kagami?”
Kagami went, “Pffft,” still staring through her auspex visor at the opposite wall. “Nothing I can pick out against the background of the ruins. Fucking hell. You’re really going to do this, you pair of berserker stim-heads. You’re both going to get shot doing this. Fuck, fuck me.”
Ilyusha barked with laughter.
Elpida said, “Likely, yes. It’s the only way. Let’s prep.”
Ilyusha sprang out of a crouch and hopped down the concrete steps, first to the backpacks. She placed her shotgun on the floor as she draped a couple of spare armoured coats over herself, then filled the pockets of her makeshift shorts with spare shells. Amina hovered nearby, as if nervous to say anything, but then Ilyusha turned to her and closed the gap. The two girls shared whispers. Hands touched, brief in parting. Ilyusha head-bumped Amina’s shoulder. Amina sniffed and wiped her eyes.
Vicky brought Elpida fresh rounds for the rifle, and her submachine gun, which Elpida slung over her other shoulder. Elpida thanked her, but Vicky just nodded, face creased with worry; she walked back over to the weapons laid out on the floor.
Kagami clicked her fingers for attention, without looking away from the view through her visor. “Are you taking the auspex with you? I can’t shout that far if she moves, and I can’t bloody well follow you. I can’t. I just can’t!”
“No, you keep it,” Elpida said. “Wouldn’t be any use to me in combat, I can’t read the intel. But I should check her location one more time. This has to be perfect.”
Kagami swallowed. “What am I supposed to do, hm? Shout to you if she … ”
Vicky selected a handgun from the floor, the only gun she could use with her reattached arm curled up against her side. She came back to the foot of the steps.
“Kaga,” she said, “you get as close to the door as you can, in case you need to shout. I’ll watch your back. I got you, okay?”
“Good idea,” Elpida said. “Vicky, thank you.”
Elpida did not like the look in Vicky’s eyes, but she knew it came from a place of concern.
Thirty seconds later, Elpida and Ilyusha stepped out of the little metal door and into the pouring rain, side by side. Ilyusha bumped her head against Elpida’s shoulder, then went right; Elpida watched her go. She was perfect: Ilyusha’s petite figure, wrapped in coats, sheltered behind the rectangle of a ballistic shield, presented a tiny target compared with Elpida’s height and muscle mass. Ilyusha scurried along the side of the bunker, splashing through the puddles, claws clicking on concrete. She dropped into a crouch, slid onto her belly, and shimmied around the corner, careless of the cold, foul-smelling water. Her tail scraped a mark on the ground. Bare bionic claws scrabbled at the concrete.
From the open doorway, over Kagami’s shivering head, Vicky hissed: “Elpi, don’t get shot.”
“It’ll work,” said Elpida.
She turned and hurried to the other corner of the bunker, raindrops pummelling her hood and shoulders. Elpida dropped to a crouch and copied the same position she’d used earlier; she unshouldered the sniper rifle and peered around the corner, so the unseen revenant’s vantage point was still below the lip of the concrete slope. She put her eye to the scope, found the right building, then shuffled out of cover and edged a few inches up the slope.
Elpida called out, “Still there, zombie? Still watching?”
She drew a bead on a random corner of brick and pulled the trigger. Millennia-old masonry shattered and joined the rainfall. She worked the bolt.
She kept shouting. “I told you we’d hunt you, zombie.” She inched forward again, crouching lower as she ascended the concrete slope. Rainwater swirled around her boots. “Last chance to back out. You wanted sport, I’m giving you a sporting chance.”
She pulled the trigger again; across the road, a shard of glass exploded into fragments.
“I’m going to count to three,” Elpida yelled.
She shuffled her boots up the concrete slope. Shoulders low, chest aching with her death-wounds, head scrunched down. Almost there. Elpida would only have to raise her head another six inches to bring the sniper’s vantage point into view of her scope — and to put her own skull in the sniper’s line of fire.
“One,” Elpida shouted. She worked the bolt on the rifle.
A screech carried on the rain: “You call this a pincer movement? You think I’m an idiot? I can see you right there!”
“Two.” Elpida willed Ilyusha not to respond.
The screech again: “You’re not much sport, are you! Come on, you can do better than this!”
Elpida stood up.
All the way up, straight to her full height, rain streaming from shoulders and hood; no edging her skull over the lip of the slope to hunt for a trick shot. Rifle butt firm against her shoulder, eye to the sight, she tracked the revenant’s estimated position all the way up. A glint of scope greeted her efforts, winking from between two twisted masses of rusted steel and ancient brick. Elpida’s finger tightened on the trigger.
But the revenant shot first — several feet too low, reacting instead of thinking, aimed at where Elpida’s face should have been.
The bullet hit Elpida in the stomach, knocked the wind out of her, and ruined her own shot. Adrenaline and pain-blockers flooded her bloodstream; genetically engineered balance and strengthened muscles kept her on her feet long enough to collapse into an unsteady crouch. One foot went out from beneath her, slipping in the rainwater; she almost slid down the concrete slope, raindrops pattering on her face and filling her mouth with acidic chemical gunk. Her body tried to vomit as waves of pain radiated up from her stomach, forcing her to cough, hacking blood into her mouth. But she didn’t have time for pain.
Ilyusha’s footsteps were already sprinting across the ancient asphalt.
Elpida jammed the rifle to her shoulder and rocketed back to her feet. This time there was no bullet — the sniper was too busy trying to take aim at Ilyusha. The heavily augmented girl was flying across the road, whooping and cackling, tail lashing the air, double coats flapping out around her like bat-wings, hiding the ballistic shield clutched in one hand. Perfect to catch any bullets.
A second gunshot rang out, but Elpida didn’t see Ilyusha stumble; Asp could have made that shot. This sniper wasn’t one tenth of Asp.
Elpida took aim at the sliver of darkness between twists of metal and piles of old brick. She pumped the trigger, peppering the concealed position.
She didn’t see if the sniper retreated, but there was no return fire. Ilyusha reached the other side of the road and slipped inside the building, raindrops pattering off her rotary shotgun as she poked it out from under the coats, pushing on inside, vanishing into the tangle of ruins.
Elpida dropped to a crouch, panting with the pain in her gut. She slid a hand across her belly, across the slick wet surface of the coat, allowing herself a hard grunt at the spike of pain, and—
A little flattened disk of lead peeled off in her fingers. Chemical propellant bullet, caught by the coat. It fell from her hand into the running rainwater with a dull clink.
She’d have a bruise like a mule’s kick. But the trick had worked.
“How’s that for sport?” she called out. Then she had to spit bile and blood into the rainwater.
Steady static hiss filled the air. No reply.
Elpida had to keep talking, keep the sniper distracted, to increase Ilyusha’s chances. “How’s that—”
Crump-thoom went something on the other side of the road, muffled inside the ruins: a small-scale explosive detonation. A grenade or a mine. Exactly as Elpida had warned.
“Hahaha!” a screeching metallic laugh rang out through the wall of rain. “Come on in, fresh meat! Come right in!”
The gambit worked, x-ray vision or otherwise; Elpida catches on quick, and she can play head-games as well as any seasoned revenant. But what’s the sniper got for back up? And was this really a bluff, or is she loaded for necromancer after all? Hope you’re enjoying this as much as I am! This arc is a blast so far, a nice slice of action, but it might not be a long one! We’ll see how quickly this all resolves.
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 3k words. Please, do feel free to wait until there’s plenty more to read! I’m still trying to somehow put out more chapters ahead, maybe soon!
There’s also a TopWebFiction entry, for voting. Voting makes the story go up the rankings, which helps more people see it!
Thank you all so much for reading my little story! I’m loving where this is going. More soon! Lots more to come!
duellum – 4.1
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!
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 3k words. Please, do feel free to wait until there’s plenty more to read! I’m still trying to somehow put out more chapters ahead, maybe soon!
There’s also a TopWebFiction entry, for voting. Voting makes the story go up the rankings, which helps more people see it!
Thank you so much for reading my story! I appreciate every comment, every happy reader. Thank you all so much; more next chapter!
Melyn woke to the familiar sound of firearms discharge.
Low and deep and crunchy: crouf crouf. The gunshots were muffled by the thick walls of her cocoon — safely beyond of layers of exotic metal, hardened polymer, and self-regrowing composite ceramic armour — but also by the blankets in which she had wrapped herself for sleep, and by the fluttering sound of Hafina snoring next to her.
Pheiri was shooting at something.
This was normal, expected behaviour. Her notes recorded three thousand seven hundred and sixty two instances of Pheiri shooting at things with small arms. She’d given up adding more instances some time ago. She couldn’t recall when.
Melyn lay awake in the dark for a long time, snuggled down against Hafina’s side. She did not want to peel herself out of the blankets to see what was going on. There was no point. The engines remained on standby, a deep-belly hum down below Melyn’s range of hearing, a comforting full-body heartbeat transmitted up through the floor of the crew compartment, where she and Haf made their bed; the hull wasn’t ringing with impacts or dinging and pinging as small-calibre rounds bounced off the dirty white exterior; nothing was scratching against the rear access ramp or the top hatch; whatever Pheiri was doing did not involve the main turret, the rail-lance, or turning on all the lights and flashing alarms and generally having a tantrum. Melyn decided the noise would probably stop soon. She wanted to go back to sleep. Haf’s flank was nice and warm. Her body said no emergency. The screen of her mind was quiet and still.
But the crack-thump of weaponry went on and on. Timers started inside Melyn’s head, counting seconds, then minutes, then a quarter of an hour, until she was not only awake, but very irritated.
She left the halo of Haf’s body heat and rolled onto her back.
The crew compartment was the single largest space inside Pheiri — the only space large enough to bed down for the night, even if the benches were often covered in junk and clothes and pieces of Haf’s rifle and side-arms; Haf liked to take the guns apart and cover them in grease and put them back together again. Melyn didn’t understand why. Sometimes Melyn slept in one of the seats in the control cockpit, or wriggled into the cramped storage racks above the crew compartment. She had vague memories of once sleeping inside Pheiri’s turret, though those memories hurt if she touched them for too long; perhaps she had been unwell. But the crew compartment was the only place she and Hafina could lay down blankets and stretch out together. Sleeping together was always better than sleeping alone. Melyn didn’t enjoy sleeping alone, not unless she could wedge herself into the smallest space possible.
White and gunmetal, Pheiri’s guts flickered and danced with the backwash from the control cockpit up front, from a constellation of LEDs and readout screens and blinking lights, like fireworks in a moonless night sky.
Melyn had never seen ‘fireworks’ or ‘the moon’. She wasn’t sure what concepts those words referred to, but they scrolled across the screen of her mind regardless. She dismissed them with growing irritation.
Pheiri was still shooting: crump-crump-crack. Then came a long pause. Then another trio of shots. A long series of whirs and clicks and deep-tissue clunks followed: fresh rounds cycling into chambers from Pheiri’s growth-organs. Three more shots. Another two. One. Silence reigned just long enough for Melyn’s eyelids to droop. Then a barrage of slam-bang-crack jerked her into awareness again. Her mind was counting minutes and seconds and shots and time between shots and predicted distances and trajectories and targets. Sleep was hopeless. She extracted her arms from the covers and frowned toward the control cockpit.
Hafina snored on, oblivious.
Melyn told herself she was not jealous of Haf’s ability to sleep through anything, but she was. She was jealous of Haf’s larger body, Haf’s extra-fluffy blonde hair, Haf’s strength and stamina, Haf’s blind faith in Pheiri, and Haf’s unerring accuracy with the rifle. She was more ambivalent about Haf’s big goofy smile and Haf’s unreserved hugs and Haf’s big stupid eyes and big stupid arms.
But Haf wouldn’t understand the lights in the cockpit. The flickering patterns called to Melyn, made her head hurt, suggested she might decipher them into ammunition levels, heat readouts, IR feedback. But Haf would just shrug. To Haf they were just patterns in the dark. Waking Haf was pointless.
Melyn poked Haf in the side, hard.
“Wake up,” she hissed. “Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.”
Haf grumbled. She wedged her large frame further into the corner between crew compartment floor and crew compartment bench. The pose looked deeply uncomfortable, but Haf liked it; Haf liked to have her back against solid surfaces. That was why Melyn always got the middle of the floor.
“Wake up. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up. Haf, wake up. Wake up. Wake up. Haf. Haf. Wake up.”
“Mmmmmnnnn,” Haf grumbled again. Big eyes stayed firmly shut. Her blonde hair was all mashed into her face. She snuggled her head down further onto the bag she was using as a pillow. “How about no?”
Melyn sat up, dragging half the covers off Haf’s front. “Can’t you hear that? Haf, listen. Listen. Listen.”
Firearms discharge cracked and thumped, on and on, into the night.
Haf frowned without opening her eyes. “It’s raining.”
Melyn tutted. “That’s not rain. That’s guns.”
“Yeah, but there’s rain too. I can hear it on Pheiri. Plink-plonk-plink. You listen.”
Melyn was about to poke Haf in the side again, harder — but then she cocked her head and realised that Haf was correct: it was raining. Big fat drops raised a wall of static against Pheiri’s exterior. The screen of her mind supplied estimated raindrop density and liquid precipitation measurements, then demanded she drink some rainwater to test the chemical composition. She made that demand go away.
“Okay,” Melyn huffed. “It’s raining, fine—”
Haf said: “I was right. Go on, tell me I was right.” Her grin split the darkness of the crew compartment, big and toothy.
“But I was right!” Haf sounded a little offended.
“That’s not important right now. Haf—”
“It’s always important when I’m right. Come on, tell me I’m clever, Mely. Pleeeeease, tell me I’m clever. Tell me I’m clever or I’ll go back to sleep.”
Melyn sighed. “You’re not more clever than me. Stop playing. Stop. Listen. Pheiri’s doing something.”
Hafina listened for a moment. Then she said: “Pheiri’s always doing something.”
“Yes, but we aren’t moving. And it’s not stopping.”
Haf shrugged beneath her ruined blanket cocoon. One huge naked shoulder went up and down. Her mouth twisted with grumpy sleep-desire. “So?”
“So, we’re not moving through anything. What’s he shooting at? Why’s it going on so long? Why now? It’s the middle of the night. That doesn’t make sense. And it’s not stopping. Not stopping. Not stopping. We have to check. I have to check.”
The slow crump-crack of gunshots continued, muffled beyond Pheiri’s hull. Melyn let the sound speak for itself. Eventually Haf sat up, too big inside the crew compartment, beautiful in her ungainly motions; the flickering cockpit lights glazed her naked shoulders and collarbone and chest. The screen of Melyn’s mind measured Haf’s visible muscles against every previous measurement of Haf’s visible muscles, then informed her that Haf had lost an estimated sixty pounds of muscle mass over the last twenty five thousand hours. Melyn’s mind suggested several sources of high-calorie intake, but she didn’t know any of the words, so she made the suggestions go away.
Haf opened her eyes and watched the ceiling. She said: “Pheiri knows what he’s doing.”
Melyn hissed, “Yes, but we don’t know what he’s doing!”
Haf shot her one of those big stupid smiles, the kind which made her soft and funny and red in the face. “Then go look? Want me to stop you? Is this just a roundabout way of waking me up for a fuck?”
Melyn punched Haf in the shoulder. Haf laughed and tried to elbow her in the side, but Melyn was already squirming out of bed.
She kept her head low as she left their blanket nest, so she didn’t bang it on the crew compartment ceiling; Melyn was much smaller than Haf, with slender limbs and fewer sticky-out bits to bruise on Pheiri’s innards, but she still had to be careful. She curled her toes against the cold metal floor as she rummaged in the equipment bags on the bench, pushing aside her helmet and old body armour and too many pairs of gloves.
Haf sat up straight all of a sudden. Her eyes went three times larger. Her skin cycled from reflective-pale to night-combat black. “Mel? You’re not going outside, are you?”
Melyn found her big grey jumper and dragged it over her head. She pulled her dark hair back into a ponytail. “Nope.”
“But what are you doing?”
“Don’t feel like being naked right now.” Melyn scooped up her notebook and a pen from the bench. She refused to look at Haf.
“Awwww, hey,” Hafina whined. “I didn’t mean to make you mad. Mely, what’d I do?”
Melyn went to the front of the crew compartment and jabbed at the dispenser controls until Pheiri disgorged a food-stick. She stuck one end in her mouth, tucked her notebook under an armpit, and ignored Haf whining her name.
“Melyyyy, Melyyyy, Melyyyyyyyy.”
Melyn squirmed through Pheiri’s innards, over branching tubes and past bunches of wiring, lifting her naked legs to scramble over the bare metal of the reserve communication officer’s seat, the secondary gunner’s position, the access hatch for the engine, and the bulge of super-heavy armour over Pheiri’s brain. She had no idea what a communication officer or secondary gunner was, or what they needed all those extra buttons and switches and dials for. Nothing back there had lit up in a long time. But the words scrolled across the screen of her mind anyway, along with the time since last activation of the respective systems: five hundred twenty six thousand three hundred and two hours.
She wriggled past the rungs of the turret-ladder and could not resist the urge to glance upward, at the control-helmet which hung in the dark, inside the turret. She suppressed a shudder, but she didn’t know why.
Melyn popped free into the control cockpit. The screens and buttons and dials were all trying to tell her things, too many things, all at once. Melyn ignored them. She crouched on the shapeless ancient stuffing of the auxiliary manual input seat, then took a moment to chew the food-stick and lick greasy crumbs off her fingertips. She flipped open her notebook and started to cross-reference the symbols on the screens against her previous records. The screen of her mind kept making useless suggestions with words she didn’t know.
Her eyes flicked up and down. Her fingertips traced her notes. Her lips moved in silence.
Haf called out, still worming her way through Pheiri’s guts: “Is he okay? Mel? Mel? Is he alright?”
Melyn tutted under her breath. “Of course he’s alright. Don’t be stupid.”
Hafina emerged into the control cockpit a second later and banged her head on the roof. She had pulled body armour over her naked top half, arms sticking out, hands clutching her rifle. Her eyes were huge in the darkness. Her skin glistened white-grey as it tried to match the metal behind her.
Melyn raised an eyebrow. “Haf, what are you doing?”
Haf said: “Is there something wrong with him!?”
“ … no. Haf, why are you carrying the gun?”
Haf looked down at the polymer-and-metal firearm in her hands. “Seemed like the right thing to do?”
Melyn sighed. She pointed at a seat on the other side of the control cockpit. “Sit. Wait. Let me read.”
Haf sat and waited. She was very still.
Melyn found Pheiri’s information harder to comprehend than usual; there was a lot of data that she’d never seen before, not recorded anywhere in her notes, indicated on readouts which she’d never seen lit, or at least not lit in those specific ways. The screen of her mind kept supplying things about atmospheric nanomachine density, orbital re-entry disturbance, relative time displacement, and flashing her with priority interrupts. She made all those go away because they weren’t helping.
One screen she did know: a landscape of green ghosts washed with ash and acid rain. That was a front view from Pheiri’s cameras. Lights blinked on a console just above her head: green for ready, red for reloading. There were a lot of reds, taking a lot of time to cycle back to green. At least she assumed that’s what the lights meant, because she’d never seen those particular ones lit before. Lots of the usual ones were green and not changing to red.
“Different … weapons?” she muttered. Hafina sat up straighter. “I’m not talking to you, Haf. Settle down. Pheiri is fine.”
Melyn pressed some of the buttons by the side of the display screens, the ones she knew from experience, the ones that would change the colours of the display or tell Pheiri that she wanted to look in different directions. But all the readouts showed her the same information, nothing new, nothing out of the ordinary, just the city, haunted by image-ghosts as zombies slipped away into the ruins. The readouts shook very slightly every time Pheiri fired another hull-weapon. Melyn couldn’t see what he was shooting at.
Haf leaned forward to get a better view, then stood up. She left her rifle behind. Her eyes were normal size again. She got behind Melyn and slowly hugged her from behind, chin on Melyn’s shoulder, crouching and bracing herself against the cramped metal confines of the forward compartment.
Melyn said: “You’re warm.”
“And you’re cold. Brain’s doing too much.” Hafina squinted hard at the third screen above Melyn’s head. “Act— act … ive? Active! Active crew … pro— prot—”
Melyn sighed. She read the glowing green text in a single glance. “Active crew protection ballistics online.”
“Ooooh, right.” Haf lit up. “What does that mean?”
Melyn frowned. “It’s right there, that’s what it means. Active crew protection ballistics online.” She tapped the screen with the end of her pen. “Right there.”
Haf pouted and blew a raspberry against the side of Melyn’s head, which turned into a brief struggle for dominance. Melyn won – she already had the chair, her hands were quicker, and Hafina’s strength was limited against non-lethal targets. After a quick cuff round the head, Haf settled back into place with her chin on Melyn’s opposite shoulder.
Haf said: “Teach me.”
“Active,” Melyn began. “So, opposite of passive. That means Pheiri is doing something.”
Haf snorted. “We know that already.”
“Yes, but this means Pheiri wants to tell us. And, ‘crew’, that’s … ”
Haf squinted. “Like the crew compartment?”
“Yes. So … let’s skip that for now.” Melyn tapped the next word. “Protection. Pheiri always protects us, so that must be right, I don’t think he’s doing anything bad.” Melyn stopped and stared for a long time at the next word. The firearms crumping and cracking from outside kept interrupting her thoughts with useless data.
The moment stretched too long for Hafina’s patience. She whined. “Ballistics?”
“I don’t know,” Melyn admitted.
“You don’t know? What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I don’t know every single word, okay? I don’t know what it means. Stop that. Stop nibbling on me.” She elbowed Haf in the ribs, which did nothing to stop Haf chewing on Melyn’s ear.
“Mmmmmmm. But you read the books. Don’t they have all the words?”
Melyn sighed. “They have lots but not all. You can’t have all the words in a single book, it doesn’t work like that. You put certain words in certain orders to say certain things, you don’t just jam them all together.”
The screen of Melyn’s mind said: Dictionary. She dismissed that.
Hafina made a dissatisfied noise.
Melyn went on: “Anyway. Ballistics. Now I’ve had a moment to think, I think it means guns. Firearms.”
“See!” Haf laughed. “You did know! Fuck it, Mel, you’re so fucking smart. I love you.”
“And you’re dumb as a brick, but I love you too.” She tapped the last word in the sentence. “Online. That means it’s on, or it’s working, or it’s connected. So Pheiri is doing something active, which is on, to protect us.” She finished, nodded, and smiled to herself. That felt good. All the things in her mind lined up for once. “He’s shooting at stuff.”
Hafina laughed. “We knew that from the start.”
Melyn nodded. “Yes. But this way is better.” She flicked back through her notes, reading by the light from the screens and LEDs. “He’s done this before. My notes say we’ve read this line before. Three hundred and eighty times in this notebook alone. This one alone.”
“That’s a lot.” Hafina sounded impressed. “Go Pheiri. Bang bang.”
Hafina smacked her lips. “Doesn’t sound right though.”
“Yes,” Melyn said. She reached up and tapped the screen again. “This next line is new. More interesting. Not seen before.” She read out loud for Haf’s benefit: “Anti-personnel munitions insufficient for penetration. Escalation to HE-tip rounds authorised.”
Hafina whistled. Melyn frowned: did Haf understand what the words meant? But Haf was already asking: “He done this before?”
Melyn flicked back through her notebook again. “Mm, yes. Here. And here. And once again, here. I think we forgot. We forgot. Forgot. We forgot.”
Haf squeezed Melyn’s shoulders, nice and tight and hard. “It’s okay,” she said.
“Yes,” Melyn said. She stared at her notes.
Hafina nuzzled her neck and said: “As long as you don’t forget me.”
“How could I?” Melyn straightened up. “You’re too large to forget. You always get in the way.” Haf made a sad face, peering around Melyn’s shoulder. “What? What? What?”
Haf said, “Doesn’t that imply I might forget you?”
“‘Cos you’re kinda small.”
Melyn rolled her eyes. “Don’t be stupid.”
Haf smiled, pretend sadness turning back into a grin.
Melyn went on: “If you forgot me, I’d beat you up.”
Haf laughed. “You wouldn’t be able to beat me up!”
Melyn turned slightly in her seat. “If you forgot me, you couldn’t use your muscles at their maximum. Therefore, I would beat you.”
Haf pulled a thinking face, then shrugged her big naked shoulders beneath her loose body armour. Her skin cycled back to its usual resting reddish tint. “Can’t argue with that, I guess.” She looked up at the screens again. “So, like, what’s Pheiri shooting at?”
Melyn didn’t answer right away. She looked up and to the left, at the portion of the forward compartment that projected upward, where the observation seat hung unoccupied. Set in the metal in front of the seat was a sliding wedge which covered a thick pane of reinforced steel-glass.
They both stared.
Melyn felt her heartbeat quicken. She wormed a hand under her grey jumper and pressed her palm to her ribs. Haf just chewed her bottom lip, then bit off a chunk of flesh and swallowed it. Melyn swatted her on the legs. Haf shouldn’t eat bits of herself. Recycling was inefficient.
“Pheiri,” Melyn said. “What are you shooting at?”
Green text scroll-printed onto a nearby screen, replacing a meaningless stack of data.
“Nanomachine conglomeration #813576,” Melyn read out loud. “Estimated sapience high-value target. Damage to outer shell negligible. Damage to core negligible. Percentage of body mass lost zero-point-zero-zero-zero-three. Estimate disengagement at eighty seconds ongoing. Recommend no pursuit of target.”
Hafina snorted. “Pheiri, we’re not gonna chase it?”
The green text re-printed itself: Recommend no pursuit of target.
“Why not?” Haf asked. “I mean, sure, you do you, but why—”
Recommend no pursuit of target.
“Why not?” Haf repeated.
Melyn said: “It’s probably bait.”
“I’m going to look,” Hafina announced. She clambered over Melyn and up into the observation seat.
“No!” Melyn whispered. “Don’t! You don’t know what Pheiri’s shooting at! Stop it!” Melyn grabbed Haf’s ankle, but Haf shook her off.
Melyn didn’t understand why she was whispering; it wasn’t as if anything outside could hear them through the inches and inches of Pheiri’s hull armour. She also didn’t understand why she was afraid. The screen of her mind was covered with terminology she didn’t understand: ‘cognitive hazard’, ‘visual spectrum infection vector’, ‘LOS resolution blocker’, and a dozen other pieces of useless nonsense that she shut down or shooed away.
Haf ignored her panic and craned forward in the observation seat. She slid the wedge open with a clack. The little steel-glass window was too high for either of them; Melyn always had to stand on the seat to see anything, but Hafina only had to strain upward and press her face to the transparent surface.
Melyn pulled her jumper over her head and huddled down in her seat. Haf stared into the dark beyond Pheiri’s hull. Raindrops blurred the world.
Moments passed. Timers counted down inside Melyn’s head. Haf didn’t make a sound. Melyn peeked out from inside the collar of her jumper, then lowered it to uncover her mouth. Haf was unmoving. Her eyes were very large.
Melyn said: “What do you see?”
“Eh,” Haf grunted. “Too dark. Too much rain. Can’t see anything.”
Melyn huffed and rolled her eyes and got out of her seat. She settled her jumper so it fell past her knees, then set about crawling around the inside of the control cockpit so she could write down all the different things Pheiri was trying to tell them. She noted the position and colour of LEDs, which ones were lit and which ones were dark; she sketched the contents of all of the screens, numbering and labelling them as she went; she wrote down all the numbers she could find, especially the ones she hadn’t seen before.
“Neural lace echo signal detected,” she read off a display, because she’d never seen the words before. “New course entered. Priority override: recovery of pilot.”
Haf peered down at her from the observation seat. “What’s that mean?”
Melyn shrugged, writing the words in her notebook. “No idea.” She frowned through the following sentences, but there was nothing interesting, just lists of numbers and directions and speeds. But then: “High risk advisory: projected course intersects nanomachine output facility footprint; crew advised to stay within atmospheric sealed compartments for approx three hundred hours. Check atmospheric seals. Check atmospheric re-processors.”
Haf went all stiff. Her eyes blinked in the dark, big and shiny-black. “Pheiri wants to go near a worm?”
“We’re nowhere near one,” Melyn said. “Nowhere near. Nowhere.”
“Yeah we’re pretty deep, right?”
“Nowhere near. Nowhere near.”
“What’s he thinking?” Hafina clacked the cover back over the observation window. “Hey, Pheiri, what you thinking? We don’t wanna go near a worm.”
“Priority override,” said Melyn.
“Eh?” Haf slithered down from the seat, huge and tight in front of Melyn. Her skin was turning grey-white again, trying to blend in with the cockpit.
“It means we don’t get a choice. It means Pheiri has to do it, and we have … to … ” Melyn looked up. “Oh. It stopped.”
“Shhhhh. Listen. Listen.”
The shooting was over. No more guns going off. The lights, the ones which had been red and green, were now all dark. The message about active crew protection had wiped itself off the relevant screen. The ash-and-acid ghosts on the night vision monitor had vanished.
Haf broke into a grin. “Thank you, Pheiri!”
“Thank you, Pheiri,” Melyn echoed in a soft purr, matching the faint hum of Pheiri’s engine. She reached out and stroked the nearest piece of bare metal.
She and Haf looked at each other for a moment, then broke into a shared giggle. Haf sat down in one of the forward seats. Melyn climbed into her lap. They wriggled to get comfortable, heads together, all six of Haf’s arms around Melyn’s much smaller body. Haf fell asleep first, snoring softly. Melyn waited longer, listening to the rain, watching until all the little lights inside Pheiri had gone out.
“Priority override,” she whispered to the dark control room. “You sure? Sure?”
A single screen blinked on. Green text print-scrolled: No. Uncertain.
Signal corruption. Orbital re-entry interference. Elevated levels of nanomachine construct activity. Risk to crew. Damage to armour plating sub-layer in locations: A453, A927, A33820, B89263, B98762, C7830387, D2387, M2223, O233321, Y2871, Y778201. Risk to crew. No pilot. Risk to crew. Fusion containment replacement required. Risk to crew. Maintenance overdue by 99999999 ERROR hours. Risk to crew.
“Are we going to do it anyway?” Melyn whispered. “Do it anyway? Anyway?”
Risk to crew.
“Okay. Okay. Do it anyway?”
Risk to crew.
The screen blinked off.
Pheiri had nothing more to say. Melyn closed her eyes, held her breath, and listened to the nuclear heartbeat below her feet.
An interlude! Something a little different. A glimpse into elsewhere. Next chapter it’s back to Elpida and her comrades, but this certainly isn’t the last we’ve seen of Melyn and Hafina, or of Pheiri, whatever he is. This was an interesting narrative experiment and I hope it went down well, because we might be doing more POV shifting in the future. Hope you enjoyed reading! Onward, to arc 4.
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 3k words. Please, do feel free to wait until there’s plenty more to read! I’m still trying to somehow put out more chapters ahead, maybe soon!
There’s also a TopWebFiction entry, for voting. Voting makes the story go up the rankings, which helps more people see it!
Thank you so much for reading my little story. More soon! Lots more to come.
vulnus – 3.5
Discussion of child soldiers
Implied incest (sort of)
The tears wouldn’t stop; burning hot behind her eyes, blurring the exterior world beyond a veil of pain, running down her cheeks in twin scar-lines, invading her mouth with the taste of bitter salt, dripping from her chin to stain the cold concrete floor and pool in the crinkling plastic of the emergency blanket. She made no effort to wipe at the tears — could not have done even if she had wanted. Heaving, shaking, suppressing each great wracking sob, grinding the broken glass inside her lungs. She gritted her teeth and screwed her eyes shut, but the tears could not be dammed up. The pain was too large for her body, with nowhere to go. She would burst, explode, fly apart. She wanted to keen and wail and howl through her teeth; she wanted to scream until her lungs ruptured; she wanted to tear handfuls of concrete from the floor and crush them to dust, hurl them at the walls, force them down her throat, smash them against her own skull, open herself up until blood and viscera and bone marrow ran free and released her from this pain.
But she didn’t. She didn’t want to wake the others — Kagami, Ilyusha, Amina. They were exhausted. They needed rest. She swallowed each sob, feeling her heart tearing at itself.
Elpida wept without end.
After minutes or hours — she wasn’t sure — she felt a hand grip her upper arm, firm and strong.
“Come on,” Vicky hissed. “Come on, Elpi. Up you get. Come on. On your feet, super-soldier girl. What do I have to say? Attention? Time to move out? On the double? Come on. Come on, get up, ‘cos I can’t lift you.”
Elpida choked out: “Your— arm—”
“Fuck my arm. Forget about the arm. On your feet. With me.”
Elpida wasn’t sure how she managed to stand, but she did. Vicky’s hand was sweaty and grimy in her own. Vicky led her out of the bunker’s main room, through the tiny dark corridor, and into the room at the opposite end, with the concrete block-seat and the cistern of water and the closed slit window. Vicky made Elpida sit down on the concrete block. Elpida could barely see through the tears. Her muscles felt like overstretched steel cables. She couldn’t stop sobbing. She wanted to smash her head into the concrete wall so the cold air would take her brains.
“Elpi,” Vicky was saying in a croaky voice. Her hand was squeezing Elpida’s shoulder. “Elpi, I’ll be back in less than sixty seconds. Okay? Can you hold on for sixty seconds for me?”
Vicky left the room. Greasy raindrops drummed on the concrete roof, drowning Elpida in black static. Low voices came from the other end of the bunker. Then Vicky returned, with the dead-blue light of a glow-stick. She joined Elpida on the bench and put her one working hand on Elpida’s shoulder.
“Let it out,” Vicky said. “Just let it out, Elpi. You gotta. You gotta let it out. You’re not gonna wake anybody up, I’ve warned them. You’ve been going and going and going since we woke up — since we came back to life, whatever. You were on your feet from the word go. You were the only one who did that. Come on, Elpi, let it out, let it—”
Elpida screamed. She screamed through her teeth until her throat was raw and bloody. She keened and spat and howled so hard she thought the concrete might crack; she leaned forward and screamed at the floor; she stamped and kicked and wept till she drooled bloody saliva.
She did what she couldn’t do yesterday — a million years ago — for each of her lost clade-sisters.
In the spire-cell where the Covenanters had incarcerated the cadre, up near the very tip of Telokopolis, she’d had to be strong. Elpida had to be the Commander, had to keep the others sharp, give them hope. She had kept them organised, made certain nobody fell into despair, or felt separated from the others. She had never given up on any of her sisters, all twenty four of them. Right down to the final day, with only herself, Kos, and Orchid left, when she’d become certain that the Covenanters were executing them, Elpida had to be strong. Yesterday.
The genetically engineered pilot-clade were hardened against panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, combat fatigue, anxiety issues; they had been grown with a host of minor but important tweaks to their emotional regulation, hormone production, and neurochemistry. But they could still cry. All of Elpida’s clade-sisters had been able to feel the full range of human emotion, even those who stood at the extremes of the project’s genetic tweaking. As Commander — or perhaps because of Old Lady Nunnus — Elpida had been allowed to see the pilot project design documents. She had read the reports on what had come before the cadre. Previous versions of the pilot project had tried to create perfect little automatons, human beings without needs; the result was flesh without soul. The first pilot project design team had been removed from their posts and barred from Civitas work for life. The cadre was the compromise: people, but selectively muted.
Except it hadn’t worked. The project had not predicted what the girls would become, the group-logic which bound them together, the intense need for each other’s company and touch and regard and love. And by the time that had become apparent, the cadre had been ready to force their hands.
But Elpida had never been taught how to deal with grief. She’d never lost a sister. She had no idea how to mourn.
So she screamed and screamed and screamed for her sisters, until she had nothing left inside.
The pain did not ebb, did not lessen, did not go away.
Eventually, only aching silence was left.
“Here,” Vicky croaked. “To … to wipe your eyes.”
She pressed one of the spare grey thermal t-shirts into Elpida’s hands. Elpida used it to wipe her face, to clean up the drool and dried tears. She stared at the concrete wall in the blue glow-stick light. She listened to the rain above her head. Vicky got up again for a moment and left the glow-stick on the concrete seat; Elpida heard the glugging of water. Then Vicky returned and held out one of the nanomachine cannisters they’d taken from the tomb, one which had already been drained of the blue nanomachine slop. She’d filled it with brackish water from the cistern.
Vicky said: “Try to drink some. Sorry, this is the only container we’ve got. S’probably got some trace leftover nanomachines in it, but hey, that’s supposed to be good for us, right? Like nano-squash. Heh.”
Elpida nodded. Her face was sore. She coughed. She drank some stagnant water, then handed the cannister back. Vicky drank as well, stiff and slow next to Elpida on the concrete seat. Raindrops drummed on the roof, washing the air clean with black static. They passed the water back and forth for a while.
Eventually, Elpida said, “How long was I crying?”
“About an hour, I think. You went quiet in the middle for a bit, then there was some more. If you need to keep going, that’s okay too.”
“I made a lot of noise.”
Vicky cleared her throat gently. “Kaga’s awake. I asked her to come get us if she sees anything moving toward the bunker.”
Vicky looked uncomfortable; she had to sit bent forward to cradle her reattached arm in her lap, and the looted green coat was pulled tight over her left side. Her dark face was lined with exhaustion, deep brown eyes soft with care. Her hair looked like she’d been running her hand through it over and over.
Elpida told her: “You need sleep.”
Vicky pulled a rueful smile. “Elpi, it’s a lot to deal with, waking up after the end of the world. With everybody gone. Dead, I mean. I cried too, earlier, while you were, um, dead. Kaga went off to cry by herself. Amina can’t stop crying. We’re all fucked up by this. It’s okay to let it out. Like I said, you’ve been in go mode since you jumped out of that coffin. Nobody’s gonna blame you for breaking down a bit.”
Elpida shook her head. “It’s not that. I wasn’t mourning the world. I’m not in shock.”
Vicky raised her eyebrows. “Oh yeah?”
Elpida stared at the concrete wall. “Yesterday — a million years ago — I was in a cell. With my cadre.”
“Cadre. Right. You called yourself ‘Commander’ earlier. You led a squad or something? A—”
“The cadre. My clade-sisters. The pilot-program clone litter. My family, my lovers, my responsibility.” Elpida spoke the words even though she knew Vicky would not understand all the meanings. “All of us. We were in that cell for almost two weeks. Every day the Covenanters would take one or two of my sisters away, and shoot them. I was the Commander, and I couldn’t do anything. They kept me for last. Probably because the Civitas was demanding they hand me over. Maybe I was a bargaining chip. Maybe the executions were political theatre. I don’t know. But at the end it was just me in that cell, alone for the first time in my life. And then they came back and shot me too.”
Vicky was silent. Elpida turned to her, and found Vicky staring in mute horror.
“ … E-Elpi, are you … you … ” Vicky swallowed. “Grief like that doesn’t just pack itself away. Do you … do you need—”
“I was made for this. I still feel it, but it’s dulled now. That’s just how I was designed.”
“What, they made you so you can’t even grieve?”
Elpida told Vicky the basics — about the pilot program, the cadre, the genetic engineering, the Civitas, the Covenanters, the endless political division over isolation and expedition, the ‘green question’ — and then about the end, the spire-cell. Vicky listened without asking questions. Elpida skipped unimportant details; the details did not matter.
“And, Howl?” Vicky asked gently. “That was a name. Was she … ?”
Elpida’s throat tried to close up. She stared at the blue-lit concrete, and recited:
“Howl. Metris. Silla. Vari. Third. Kit. Daysalt. Shade. Orchid. Arry. Bug. Ipeka. Velvet. Kos. Fii. Snow. Here. Dusk. Scoria. Yeva. Try. Asp. Quio. Emi.”
Black static washed away the names. Elpida repeated them a second time, under her breath. She reached up and cupped the back of her neck, where her MMI slot should have been.
After a long moment, Vicky said: “Those were their names?”
Elpida nodded. “Mmhmm. Howl was my … closest. Second-in-command, sort of. We didn’t really have ranks, not really.”
“But you were in charge?”
Elpida shrugged. “The Legion had ranks, so we had to maintain some semblance of command structure, even if just for appearances. I was the Commander, but not because of rank, and not because of anything the project bio-engineers intended. I was Commander because the others followed me. Silla, Metris, Howl, they were my lieutenants. But Howl was … ” The tears threatened to come back. Elpida took a deep breath. “Howl was special.”
“Your … lover?” Vicky sounded a little uncomfortable. Elpida was used to that.
“We all loved each other. In all different sorts of ways. Born together, raised together. But with Howl and me, it was always very intense. She was impossible.” A smile pulled at the corners of Elpida’s mouth. “She would always push me, always question me, challenge me in front of the others. We beat each other black and blue in sparring. But she’d always want to get in private, too, just the two of us. She loved me, more than the others, I think, though that’s impossible to quantify. And I relied on her in a way I never understood, not until … ” Elpida trailed off, looking down at her hands. “We were very close. Slept together a lot. I knew her body better than I know my own.”
Vicky didn’t say anything for a long moment, so eventually Elpida looked up — and found a very familiar expression looking back at her: incomprehension, caution, concern. She straightened up.
“Elpi,” Vicky started to say. “I don’t know what to—”
Vicky froze. “ … Elpi?”
“I’ve seen that look on your face a thousand times before.” Elpida kept her voice level and calm, but she was surprised — by anger. She’d never given vent to it before, not to a Legionnaire, not in the Civitas, not to Old Lady Nunnus — not to any outsider beyond the cadre. “You don’t understand what I’ve told you. You don’t understand us. You don’t understand the bond we have or what it means; because you don’t think it’s real. You see a genetic experiment that doesn’t really think or feel like a—”
Vicky raised her good hand. “Elpi, whoa, no—”
“We were never approved of. First we were a bunch of soulless freaks, raised in antiseptic rooms, prodded and poked and experimented on—”
“Elpi! It’s okay, you’re—”
“Until we killed one of our handlers at six years old!” Elpida snapped in Vicky’s face. Vicky shut up. “I led that. I led the others in a murder. I made the decision, I approved the plan, I took responsibility. Because I could see what would happen if we didn’t. Genetic engineering had gifted me enough intelligence that at six years old I could see the project was going to split us up.”
Vicky nodded. “Okay. Okay.”
“They called us clones, but we weren’t identical. Not from identical genetic stock. Each of us was selected and built differently. That was part of the experiment. And they were going to split us up, use some of us to breed more, discard others as failed — not kill us, but just into the civilian population. They wanted to split us up. So we killed a fully grown man at six years old. We trapped him, cut his hamstrings, and broke his neck. We showed the project what we were capable of. And it worked.”
Elpida continued: “And then we were still freaks, but we were something else too. Nobody ever approved, no matter how successful we were, no matter that we finally got the combat frames to respond to a human MMI link. No matter how deep we went into the green. No matter how many Legion operations we saved. Did we have souls? That was up for debate. Could we feel? Probably, but maybe not. Old Lady Nunnus believed us. When she took over, she treated us like human beings, because she believed in the purpose of the project, she was an expeditionist — but even she didn’t want to know what was inside our heads. Legion Commanders found it weird that we all slept together, that we were so close, that we fucked.” Something caught in Elpida’s throat. “We fucked.” She took a deep breath and looked at the ceiling. “It feels good to say that. I’m sorry, Vicky. I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to feel these things.”
Vicky touched Elpida’s shoulder with cautious fingertips. “I don’t know what to say. Elpi, I’m so sorry.”
Elpida just nodded. The pain was still there, tender and raw. Her heart lurched and she coughed again. “I’m sorry I snapped at you. I saw something in your face which wasn’t really there. Projecting. You didn’t deserve that.”
“Apology accepted. It’s no problem. You’ve been through a lot. Shit, that feels like an understatement alright.” Vicky fell quiet for a long moment, then said: “Do you think—”
“We were just casualties in a bigger conflict,” Elpida said quickly. “In the end we just didn’t matter. Most people who live in Telokopolis will never see it from the outside, from the exterior. If they do, then it’s from up close, from just down on the plateau. The Legion, they never go that far into the green. They can’t. A few miles at most, then the green itself and the Silico push them back. But us?” Elpida smiled, tasting bitter salt once more. “We saw the city from half a world away. You know what it looks like? A shining needle. Touching the sky. It’s beautiful.”
Slow tears rolled down her cheeks, for something other than her sisters.
Elpida added, “Telokopolis killed all my sisters. And Telokopolis is eternal. And it’s not theirs. It belongs to all of us.”
And if any of my sisters are up and breathing in this afterlife …
Elpida let that thought trail off. She left it unspoken. Pira had warned, that way lay madness.
Black static filled the silence. Minutes passed. Elpida dried her eyes again. She moved her lips in a silent mantra, repeating once again the names of all her clade-sisters.
Vicky waited for her to finish, then said: “You know, Elpi, when I called you super-soldier girl, I was kind of joking.”
“You weren’t wrong.”
Vicky let out a very awkward laugh. “Yeah, but you were also a child soldier. That’s no joke. Sorry.”
Elpida said, “It was worth it. The project was correct. The Covenanters were wrong, the isolationists were wrong. This future proves that, if nothing else. We were correct.”
“Sure, but that doesn’t justify child soldiers.”
“Without the project, my sisters and I would not have existed.” Elpida nodded to Vicky. “I came to terms with that long before death. I just wish they were here. I’m not supposed to be alone.”
“None of us are,” Vicky said. “And hey, we’re not, are we?”
“I suppose not.”
Vicky smiled a grim smile. “Hey, no judgement or anything. Technically I was a child soldier too. I thought it was pretty justified at the time.”
Elpida gestured for the cannister of water. Vicky handed it over. Elpida drank, then handed it back again, and said: “Tell me about Houseman Square.”
Vicky blinked, dark lashes catching glow-stick light. “W-what? I mean, pardon?”
“Back in the tomb, when I asked if you’d ever been in a firefight. You said nobody would even remember what the battle was about, or why it mattered. I said you could tell me about it later. I was the only one who knew the names of all my sisters, but now you know as well. So, tell me about Houseman Square. Then I’ll know.”
Vicky let out a big sigh, then almost laughed. “Fucking hell, Elpi.” She cast around the concrete room as if looking for a way out. “Gonna need a stronger drink than stale water for that. I’m not really sure you wanna know, not after what you told me. Houseman Square was heavy shit.”
“Vicky, look at me.”
Vicky looked, and looked troubled.
“I’m alright now,” Elpida said.
Vicky looked very sceptical. “Uh, sure.”
“I don’t mean that I’m not in pain. I think I’ll always be in pain. But I’m calm. I’m present. This is what I was designed and trained to do: be calm and present so I can make plans and lead my cadre. Please, tell me about Houseman Square.”
Vicky pulled an apologetic grimace. “If you say so.” She took a deep breath. “Houseman Square was a prison. An unofficial prison, but the sort everybody knows about, you know? Torture, gruesome stuff. People went in and didn’t come back out. Or came out missing pieces. Used to be this police precinct building, old-city stuff. Um. The battle was, uh, well.” She shook her head and looked away. “Sorry, Elpi, this is complicated stuff.”
“I can keep up.”
Vicky didn’t look at her. “Opening the prison was the GLR’s excuse to cross the border into Chicago. Hell, they didn’t need an excuse by that point. It’s why I joined the irregulars, for that fight. Lied about my age.” She let out a sharp sigh. “Look, Elpi, none of this is going to make sense to you. You don’t have the context for the GLR, the revolution, any of it. I don’t think I’d make sense in your world. Future. Whatever.”
“You can tell me anyway. I’ll still listen.”
Vicky snorted. “Yeah, I guess you will.”
“You lied about your age? Why?”
Vicky’s sad smile turned almost to a grin. “So they’d let me fight. Told ‘em I was sixteen. I was actually a week shy of fifteen. Don’t think they were convinced, but the GLR covert guys already inside the city, they didn’t give a shit. They wanted rifles in hands and red flags in the air. Fuck it, I would have turned up even if they’d said no. Somebody I knew was in Houseman Square, that’s why I joined.” She sighed deeply. “I didn’t even hear Borzman’s ‘no more masters’ speech until three years later. Didn’t read any theory, didn’t give a shit. I just wanted my dad out of that prison. The GLR were the only ones trying.”
“Mm.” Vicky fell silent. Her fingers hovered toward the exposed muscle of her reattached arm. “He was dead though. Way too late. Died weeks before the revolution came to Chicago.”
Vicky shook her head. “Twenty years ago, now.” Then she laughed, just once, eyes far away. “Two hundred million years, actually, I guess. Twenty subjective years. Weird.”
Elpida studied Vicky’s profile, her dark skin and full cheeks and sharp nose: Vicky — Victoria — did not look thirty-five years old. She looked twenty.
Elpida weighed her options, then said: “You don’t look thirty-five.”
Vicky froze. She glanced at Elpida, as if caught in a lie. She swallowed, then smiled, intensely awkward. “Yeah. I noticed. Something to do with the nanomachines, maybe. I guess.”
Elpida considered the possibility that Vicky was a necromancer, as Pira had described. Perhaps Vicky was wearing a body and a history not truly her own, and was having trouble keeping her story straight. Vicky had taken wounds, covered Elpida’s back, struggled alongside her. Pira had suggested that Elpida might be a necromancer, ‘role-playing’ a revenant for personal pleasure.
Elpida considered the possibility — and decided that it didn’t matter, either way.
“Chicago,” Elpida echoed the name-word Vicky had used. “Is that where you come from?”
Vicky took a deep breath, visibly relieved. “Sort of. The Chicago city-state. Used to be part of this big empire like a hundred years before I was born. Then part of a smaller empire, but nobody called it that. Everybody just called us Chicago.” She shrugged. “But now I’m … or I was … ” She shook her head and straightened up with sudden pride. “Nah, not was. I am still a citizen and soldier of the GLR. The Great Lakes Republic.” She smiled suddenly. “Fuck Chicago. I hope the GLR eventually finished the job and burned the arcology to the fucking ground.” Then she laughed. “I’m not supposed to say things like that. We’re not supposed to wish that. We were meant to take the arcology, no matter how long it lasted. Borzman and Merla themselves both said that. At least if the bastards didn’t nuke themselves first. Ha. Ahhh, Elpi, you don’t even know what half of this means, do you?”
Elpida smiled back. “Doesn’t matter.”
She had no idea how Vicky’s world fitted together; half the ideas Vicky implied were alien — the word ‘revolution’ reminded her too much of the Covenanters. But Elpida recognised that pride, that identification, that straightening of the spine. She felt the same thing when she thought of Telokopolis.
“Houseman Square, then,” Elpida said. “Do you want to tell me about the battle itself, or does that not matter in the same way?”
Vicky didn’t answer for a moment. She looked down at her hands, a nervous twitch in her face. Then: “Elpi, I’ve got a secret to tell you. About me. About my body.”
Necromancer? “Go on.”
Vicky was almost shaking. She looked up at Elpida’s eyes. “When I woke up in the tomb … I … I didn’t mean to … I had nothing to hide, I just … ”
“Vicky, it’s okay. Whatever it is.”
“Vicky’s not even my real name,” said Vicky. Her voice was stretched thin. Her eyes were wide with private panic. “I picked it. On the spot, when you asked me in the tomb. I picked it. It’s not real.”
“My name is real,” Elpida said.
Vicky halted whatever she was about to say. “What?”
“I picked my own name. All of us in the cadre did. Nobody named us. They gave us numbers.”
Vicky stared, blinked several times, and then laughed once, sad and confused. “Right. Right.”
“It’s no less real because you picked it yourself.”
Vicky nodded, but she was still on the edge of a strange panic.
Elpida said: “Vicky, are you a necromancer?”
Vicky laughed again. “No. No, that would be simpler. Elpi, this.” She held up her good hand. “This isn’t my body. I mean, it’s my face — I know it is, I’ve checked, I spent like two hours staring into the surface of one of these stupid space blankets. It’s my face, it’s my skin, it’s even my fingers and my scars and … and … but it’s not my body.” She shook her head. “For a start it’s almost twenty fucking years younger.”
“But you’re in it,” Elpida said. “It’s yours.”
Vicky laughed. “Yeah, but—”
Uneven footsteps tapped into the tiny corridor which connected to the main room of the bunker. Vicky jumped, good hand to her mouth. Elpida just looked round and waited.
Kagami’s voice called a moment later: “Are you two decent in there? I am not walking in on zombie sex, not on day one. Day two, whatever this is now. I would prefer never.”
Vicky huffed: “We’re not doing that, Kaga.”
Elpida just said, “We’re decent.”
Kagami shuffled into the room, peering around the doorway with her doll-like face. She looked tiny and huddled inside her armoured coat. The auspex visor across the top half of her face made her look like a giant insect, recently emerged from her cocoon.
“Kaga,” Vicky said, “were you listening to us? Did you—”
“I do not give a fig whatever you were talking about,” Kagami grumbled. “I don’t care. Shut up.”
Elpida said, “We have company.” It wasn’t a question.
Kagami nodded. She pointed, up and to the left, staring through her visor, seeing through concrete and steel and empty air. “I spy with my large and high-cognition-load eye — a single revenant, crouched in a building, two or three floors up.”
Elpida stood up. Her heart lurched. She coughed. “Alone? Just one?”
“Alone,” Kagami confirmed. “And pointing something at the bunker — something glowing like a red-hot poker. I think we’re about to be cracked open.”
Nanomachines can fix the body, heal the heart muscle, and plate the ribcage with steel – but some wounds run deeper than flesh. Will Elpida ever be whole without her cadre? She’s going to have to keep walking, even if she’s dead, if she wants these new comrades to survive. In the meantime, there’s always hope. And I hope you have enjoyed this arc, because next week … well, I would say next week we’re onto arc 4, but it’s actually going to be a single-chapter interlude. Something very different indeed. Only one chapter though! And then arc 4, and whatever beasts and rascals lurk beyond Elpida’s flickering firelight.
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 4.5k words. Please, do feel free to wait until there’s plenty more to read! I’m still trying to somehow put out more chapters ahead, maybe soon!
There’s also a TopWebFiction entry, for voting. Voting makes the story go up the rankings, which helps more people see it!
Thank you so much for reading my story! More soon!
vulnus – 3.4
Mention of cannibalism
Elpida echoed the word, enunciating with great care, swallowing a cough as her heart lurched.
Pira stared back, blue eyes like an electric arc burning across molten skies, face half in shadows cast by the weak illumination from the pair of glow-sticks. She was shaking very slightly with muscle tension. Her face was hard, sweat beading on her forehead, as if waiting for Elpida to charge at her. Cold wind scraped across the roof of the bunker.
Elpida shook her head. “I recognise the word, but it means nothing to me in this context.”
Pira barely breathed: “Are you sure about that, zombie?”
Elpida opened her hands, slowly and carefully. She held them palm-outward, away from her sides. “Pira, do you need me to put my firearm on the floor?”
Vicky coughed. “Whoa, whoa, what? What’s happening? Did I miss a step?”
Kagami snorted, forcing a laugh. “Our saviour suspects that little Miss Commander here is more than she appears.”
Atyle spoke up too: “We are all more than we appear.”
Elpida maintained eye contact with Pira, and repeated: “I can put my firearm on the floor if you need me to.”
Pira said, “Why would you do that?”
“Because I can tell that you’re bracing for me to shoot you, or planning to shoot me first, and I have no idea why. I can put my gun down, or you can take it off me, or—”
Ilyusha surged to her feet.
Throwing off the spare coats, pushing Amina clear with a yelp, slamming red-tipped claws into the concrete floor; teeth bared, hands wide, eyes burning hot-steel grey. Elegant black-and-red bionic limbs glinted darkly in the glow-stick light. Her tail whipped upward, poised for a strike, spike extended, aimed at Pira’s skull.
“Fuck you!” she screamed. “Fuck you!”
Pira flinched — but she didn’t reach for her weapon.
Elpida shouted: “Illy! Illy, no, please! Ilyusha, Illy, don’t!”
The others joined in: Vicky was croaking, “Illy, Illy, it’s okay”; Kagami was huffing and puffing curses, calling Ilyusha a primitive fool, a ‘chem-jacked bitch’, a ‘borged-up retard’; Atyle merely clicked her tongue; Amina, down on the ground at Ilyusha’s feet, wrapped her short pudgy arms around one of Ilyusha’s black-red bionic legs.
Ilyusha just panted through her teeth, daring Pira to go for her gun.
Pira looked at Ilyusha like none of this mattered. “Don’t be stupid. I’m not going to take her weapon and I’m not going to shoot her. What would be the point?”
Ilyusha screwed up her face in disgust. “She’s not a necromancer! Fuck you!”
Pira said nothing. Ilyusha turned away and flung herself back down into the nest of spare coats, sulking into Amina’s shoulder. The younger girl was too shocked and confused to do anything but awkwardly pat Ilyusha’s back.
“Necromancer,” Elpida repeated. “Pira, what does that mean?”
Vicky cleared her throat, then spoke a little too fast, “Yeah, I know that word too. Or I know the meaning, it’s not weird or archaic or anything. We’re all speaking our own languages and the nanomachines are auto-translating, right? I know I’m speaking English, to my own ears—”
Kagami scoffed: “Fucking hell.”
Vicky carried on, “Or we’re speaking some kind of shared polyglot, I dunno, and the nanomachines are fixing it up with some post-processing. Yeah? Right? Okay? But ‘necromancer’, the word makes sense to me. Kaga? Atyle?”
Atyle echoed, “Necromancer. Quite.”
Kagami sighed. “It’s meaningless.”
Pira was still staring at Elpida as if trying to decide between pointless resistance or acceptance of her own death — as if Elpida was the only one carrying a gun. Elpida knew that look all too well; she’d seen it on the faces of Legion soldiers and Covenanter fanatics alike, directed toward her; she’d seen it on the cadre’s early handlers, the project men with their check-lists and protein cubes and taser-prods. She’d seen it on the face of the cadre’s first kill at six years old, when they’d cut his hamstrings and pulled open his clean-room gear and broken his neck and eaten part of his corpse. She didn’t want anybody to look at her like that. She would have preferred if Pira had tried to shoot her.
“Pira,” she said slowly. “Whatever you think I am—”
“You’re not.” Pira took a deep breath and let out a long sigh. The combat-ready tension went out of her shoulders. She closed her eyes and rubbed them with thumb and forefinger. Elpida relaxed too, slowly, with no sudden movements. Pira continued: “You’re not a necromancer. Probably.”
Kagami huffed. “Your paranoia would be a lot more relatable if you would explain yourself. I have plenty of my own questions about our oh-so-brave Commander here and her direct line to the giant fucking worm machine out there, but right now I’m inclined to side with her and the—” Kagami paused. “Ilyusha over there. Elpida got us out of that fucking obscenity where we woke up, and killed the munitions cyborg. We’d be dead without her. You ran off by yourself, bitch.”
Elpida said: “Kagami, thank you. But Pira’s one of us, too. She came back for me.”
Kagami huffed again and flapped her hands. “Whatever.”
Pira looked Elpida up and down, then turned back to the map she’d drawn on the wall.
“‘Necromancer’ is just a word,” she said, low and quiet. “Like ‘zombie’. It’s a shorthand among the revenants, for the civilization that came before all this. For the people who did this.”
Kagami said, “Too much experimenting with nanotechnology and AI? Are we in the aftermath of a grey goo problem? Morons at the end of the tech tree? Explain.”
Pira shrugged. “I don’t know. We’re their waste, their aftermath, their pollution.”
Elpida said: “But you think there’s some of these people left?”
Pira didn’t respond for a long moment. She stared at the map she’d drawn on the wall in black camo paint. She touched one of the triangles labelled ‘tower’.
Kagami snapped: “How do you know any of this?”
Pira turned back to them. The steel had gone out of her face. She seemed exhausted. “People blame all sorts of things on the necromancers. Whenever something weird happens, or a graveworm does something unexpected, or something particularly horrible walks out of the wilds beyond the safe zone — must be a necromancer nearby. Must be a way to explain it.” She shook her head. “Almost never is.”
Kagami pressed: “But how do you even know—”
“Because rarely — very rarely — somebody meets a necromancer for real.”
Elpida said: “Have you met a necromancer?”
“And you think I’m one of them?”
“I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and I’ve met a necromancer once. Once. A very long time ago.” Pira stared at the floor next to Elpida’s feet. “They can disguise themselves to look like us. If you were a necromancer, you wouldn’t have died fighting that zombie. You wouldn’t have died at all. You wouldn’t have needed raw blue to bring you back, and you wouldn’t have needed me to smear it on your pulped heart muscle. You wouldn’t care about me shooting you, because you would have perfect control of the nanomachines in your body — and in ours, too. You could freeze us in place, stop our hearts, turn us into sludge. Whatever you wanted.” She finally looked up at Elpida, her eyes gone flat. “If you were a necromancer, then your body wouldn’t be real, just somebody else’s face and form over a compacted mass of nano-sludge. Whoever they were, they gave up being human long before they ended all biological life.” She let out another sigh. “Or maybe you are a necromancer, and you’ve decided to really commit to the illusion.”
Vicky said, “Hey now, Elpi woke up with the rest of us. We were all in that tomb together. She was right there, you saw her. We all saw her.”
“Did we?” said Pira.
Elpida nodded. “I understand your suspicion. I would think the same in your position. It’s only sensible caution.”
“You spoke to a graveworm. Necromancer or not, I don’t know what you are.”
“I’m a soldier of Telokopolis.”
Pira nodded. “Don’t tell anybody else about speaking to the graveworm. If we take on others, or become part of a larger group, or even just meet one without fighting, don’t tell anybody.” She pointed at Vicky. “She has a point. I saw you in the tomb. You got these people together and you got them out. I don’t know how you did that, but you did. Fine. I don’t care if you are a necromancer, role-playing as a revenant for fun. But nobody else will see it that way. You let on, you’ll get a bullet in the head, and they’ll burn your corpse.”
Silence fell over the bunker room. Elpida took a deep breath and nodded. Vicky muttered, “Fucking hell. Fuck me. Fuck all of this.” Kagami snorted a wordless dismissal, turning away in disgust. Atyle just closed her eyes and straightened her back. Amina and Ilyusha were absorbed in their private refuge. Pira turned away and looked at her map again.
At length, Vicky said: “Are … are the necromancers all women, too?”
Pira turned back. “What?”
“All women. All the revenants, us, earlier. It was all women. Is that true for the necromancers, too?”
Pira said, “I don’t know.”
“Are the revenants all women?”
“As far as I know.”
Pira sighed. “I don’t know.”
Vicky was shaking her head. “So that’s it? That’s Earth now? There’s no human beings left, except us?”
“None would survive the nanomachine atmosphere, anyway.”
Kagami spat: “We’re not human beings! We’re not even our original selves, we’re copies, we’re pollution. We’re pure externality. Didn’t you hear her?” She pointed at Pira. “And you. Are these hypothetical bone-lords extinct, or not? You contradicted yourself, you know that?”
Pira said, “Maybe. Maybe not. The few among the revenants, I think they’re just leftovers. Like us. And maybe they’re all gone by now.”
Elpida said, “But you want to reach the towers, to see if there’s any left?”
Kagami scoffed before Pira could answer: “She already said. A global control system for the nanomachinery. An off-button for this zombie shit-world.” She let out a high-pitched laugh, scratching along the edge of hysteria. “You’re telling me that the last human civilization — no, last post-human civilization, they did what? They killed the biosphere, drowned the fucking planet in nanomachines, gave birth to AI obscenities, and then — died out? They fucked off and left behind their mess?”
“Pretty much,” said Pira.
“Ha!” Kagami barked. Her doll-like face had gone pale. Cold sweat plastered her black hair to her forehead.
Vicky said, “Kaga, hey, cool down.”
Elpida added, “Kagami, look—”
“No,” Kagami snapped, pointing a finger up at Elpida. “You shut up for a second.” She addressed Pira again: “How long has this been going on? This doesn’t even make sense.” She rapped her knuckles against the concrete floor. “This bunker is practically untouched. We saw skyscrapers from the window in the tomb. Skyscrapers, glass and steel, it doesn’t last! This city isn’t two thousand years abandoned, and it’s certainly not thirty thousand years—”
“The necromancers didn’t build the city,” Pira said. Her voice seemed so very tired. “They only built the towers. Maybe the ring. The city was here before them.”
“That makes even less sense!”
Pira said, “The air is full of nanomachines. The soil, the water, all of it.”
“The city regrows.” Pira nodded at the door into the tiny corridor. “Those corpses in the bunk-room, they’re really corpses. The nanomachines regrow them, and a billion others, based on a pattern from a hundred thousand years ago. Or more. I don’t know how long this has been going on.” Pira poked the floor with the toe of her boot. “The concrete, the asphalt, the glass, the brick. All of it. It all regrows, crumbles, rots, and regrows again. If we wait here long enough, those corpses in the bunk-room will eventually stand up. But they wouldn’t be human beings. They wouldn’t even be like us. Just another type of zombie. Stuff rises from the nanomachine soup, but none of it is alive. There is nothing left alive.”
Kagami stared in stunned silence. Vicky swallowed loudly. Amina was crying again, in wide-eyed silence.
Elpida said, “We’re alive.”
Pira held her gaze for a moment. “That’s all I know. Welcome to the end, zombie.”
“I’ve got more questions,” Elpida said.
“Y-yeah,” Vicky stammered. “So do I.”
Pira said, “I’m sure you do, but we’re running out of time. We need protection or firepower before the graveworm starts moving. We need to get that cyclic coilgun, it’s the best bet we have.”
Elpida asked, “How long until the graveworm moves?”
Pira shrugged. “Could be months. Could be hours. Could start in five minutes. The graveworm is still post-partum so I would estimate a few days.” She looked down at Atyle. “You, bionic eye.”
“Atyle,” said Atyle.
Atyle opened her eyes. Peat-green bionic whirred and spun in one socket. “You and I, mysterious stranger?”
“You and me,” Pira said. “How far away is the scavenger group?”
Atyle cocked her head. “Two hours travel. Perhaps.”
“How many of them?”
“A dozen. Some of them are … beautifully changed. I would have asked for a closer look, but I do not wish to have my eye plucked out.”
Pira said, “You guide me or this doesn’t happen.”
Atyle got to her feet, tall and willowy in her own long black armoured coat. Pira slung her submachine gun and looked Atyle up and down. “You’re not armed.”
Atyle showed her teeth. “Is that not your purpose, warrior?”
“Fine. Let’s go.” Pira met Elpida’s eyes. “You’re not coming.”
Elpida nodded. “I know.”
Pira blinked in surprise.
Vicky croaked, “Wait, what?”
Kagami laughed, a horrible lost sound. “I assumed our hero of the hour would be in high demand.”
Elpida took a deep breath. Her back felt cold where the exit wounds wheezed and sucked. Her heart spasmed in her chest. She coughed. “I doubt I can run while my heart is healing. You’re going to rely on stealth, and I can’t stop coughing. I would be a liability to you. I would be a terrible Commander if I put you two at further risk for the sake of my own vanity. That’s not how we did things in—” Telokopolis? No. “In the cadre.” She held out her hand to Pira, and spoke words from a million years ago: “Good hunting in the green, but do not stay from these doors too long. Hurry home to us, sister. Hurry home soon.”
Elpida’s eyes prickled with heat. Her throat tightened.
Pira stared for a long moment, then clasped Elpida’s hand. Elpida repeated the words for Atyle; the tall dark woman took Elpida’s hand without pause, and gave her a smile too.
“Bar the door behind us,” Pira instructed. “Whoever shot at the worm-guard earlier might still be watching this bunker, if the worm-guard didn’t get them. Anybody knocks, power up the coilgun and shout for them to go away. Don’t pretend you’re not here.”
Vicky asked. “What if the graveworm starts to move?”
“Then we’re all dead. No sense worrying. Get some sleep.”
Elpida accompanied Pira and Atyle up the short flight of concrete steps. The shadows were thicker up by the door. She readied her weapon to cover their exit, though Atyle assured them nobody was around. Elpida whispered “Good luck,” then unbarred the door and opened it just wide enough for the pair to slip out into the red-tinted twilight of frozen black.
Pira loped out across the empty concrete basin, moving with the ease of long practice, covering every angle with the muzzle of her submachine gun. Atyle strode on, head high, uncaring of what she could not see. Elpida cast one last look up at the towering mountain range of the graveworm in the distance. Then she shut the door and sealed herself inside.
By unspoken agreement the others followed Pira’s advice to get some rest; Elpida knew it was more from exhaustion than prudence.
Kagami curled up on her side beneath another spare coat, with a folded sleeve as a pillow, grumbling a bitter curse under her breath. She looked tiny and fragile, facing the wall in sullen silence until her breathing grew slow and soft. Amina and Ilyusha went into the other room together for a few minutes; Elpida heard the sound of water falling from cupped hands, and Ilyusha’s muffled giggle. They returned arm-in-arm and snuggled back into their corner, though Ilyusha took a moment to pat Elpida on the flank. Amina looked distant and shell-shocked.
Vicky gave Elpida an awkward smile.
“Gonna sleep?” Elpida asked softly.
“May as well try,” Vicky croaked. She leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes, cradling her reattached arm in her lap. “Can’t really lie down. You?”
“In a minute or two. I’m going to check the other rooms first, make sure we’re secure. Do you want water? I could use one of the empty nano cannisters.”
“Nah. Not thirsty. Thanks, Elpi.”
Elpida went into the tiny corridor, alone. Her body moved automatically, taking her into the little bunk-room so she could stare at the skeletons and mattresses embedded in glistening black goo. The bones did not look like they would stand up any time soon. Then she went into the room at the end of the corridor, with the cistern of water and the open slit-window in the wall.
She stared out of the slit for a while, at the black sky and the rotten teeth of crumbling buildings, trying to feel anything about what Pira had said, about necromancers and zombies and the aftermath of biological life. But nothing came to mind. Rest was a sensible plan. The right plan. Correct.
Raindrops began to fall, speckling the ruins. Fat, heavy drops drummed faintly on the roof of the bunker. The rain looked black and greasy. A gunshot echoed from somewhere far away. A shout carried on the wind. The worm-guard had left no mark on the concrete. Elpida closed the metal shutter over the slit-window.
She drank several mouthfuls of water from her own cupped hands, then looked up at the ceiling, and said: “Graveworm?”
When Elpida returned to the main room of the little bunker, the others were asleep. Vicky’s eyes were closed and her breathing was regular, her body dark and muscular against the wall. Kagami was curled up, tight and secure, shoulders small and slender. Ilyusha and Amina were burrowed down together, wrapped in each other’s arms.
Elpida attempted to lie down on the coat where she had lain as a corpse, but getting into a sitting position was difficult enough. Even with pain-blockers flooding her bloodstream, her chest felt like it was made of shattered glass. Her heart kept jerking and jumping. She had to swallow a cough — didn’t want to wake the others. The thermal blanket crinkled beneath her coat every time she moved. Eventually she managed to lie on one side, facing toward Vicky.
The morbid association did not bother her. Neither did sleeping in a room full of people; the cadre had always slept together, right from the start, in a big pile when they were younger, with more space as they got older, sometimes in twos or threes, but always in the same room. Any attempt to separate them was dangerous. Their early handlers had learned that the hard way; the cadre’s own actions had turned it into official policy, though they hadn’t known so at the time. Elpida had not slept alone a single night of her life, not until—
Yesterday? she thought. Yesterday was a million years ago. She’d been last to leave, last out, alone in that spire-cell, yesterday.
A strange pressure squeezed Elpida’s heart. She stared at the toe of Vicky’s boot. Her eyes burned.
“Howl,” she mouthed. “Howl?”
The black rain drummed static on the bunker roof. Elpida’s chest tightened.
Vicky’s lips parted with a click: “Is that a name?”
Elpida blinked moisture out of her eyes. “Pardon?”
“‘Howl’,” Vicky whispered. “You said it earlier, too, when you … came back. And in the tomb, I think. Is that a name?”
Elpida didn’t feel like expanding. Vicky didn’t ask her to. Minutes passed in black static.
Then, Vicky whispered: “I can’t sleep. Pain’s too much. You?”
“I’ve got pain-blocker glands. Genetically engineered,” Elpida whispered back. “But I don’t think I’m going to sleep either.”
“Misery loves company.” Vicky puffed out a little laugh. “What do you normally do when you can’t sleep?”
“Exercise. Sparring. Sex.”
Vicky blinked open her eyes and stared down at Elpida, eyebrows raised. “Wow. Well. Probably can’t do any of those right now. Here we are, denied the chief nourisher in life’s great feast, which is ironic, on account of being undead and all.” She smiled painfully. “You get that one? Shakespeare made it to your future?”
“I’ll take that as no, then.” Vicky frowned. “Elpi, are you okay?”
Elpida sat up on her makeshift bed. “Yesterday I was in a prison cell. A million years ago. But also yesterday.”
Vicky smiled. “I’m kinda in shock too,” she whispered. “How can anybody sleep after all that stuff from Pira? Hey, for the record, I don’t think you’re a necromancer or whatever. Even if you are, I don’t care. You saved us. More than once. Pira’s paranoid. How long do you think she’s been doing this?”
“A long time.” A lump formed in Elpida’s throat. “I’d like to ask her that, when she and Atyle return.”
“Yeah,” Vicky said. “Hey, I expect you’ve slept enough, anyway, right?”
Elpida said: “We both need to heal. Is there anything I can do to help you?”
Vicky shook her head. “It’s just the pain. I’ve slept in much worse places than this. At least there’s a door, and no drafts, no rats or cockroaches, or shit on the floor. I’ve been homeless before, this is practically luxury compared to that.”
“ … yeah? Like, homeless. Nowhere to live. Sleeping rough.”
“Home … less.” Elpida split the word into its component parts. She shook her head. “The concept makes no sense to me. Maybe translation isn’t working.”
Vicky frowned. Elpida was surprised to see a glimmer of sudden hostility in Vicky’s dark face. Vicky murmured: “Oh. Right. No homeless people in your shining city on a hill, huh?”
Elpida shook her head. “Telokopolis is home. And it’s on a plateau, not a hill. Vicky, what’s wrong?”
Vicky lifted her head and sat forward slightly. Her expression took on a hint of suspicion. “Alright, in your Telokopolis, what happens to people who can’t afford their homes anymore?”
“They … find another one?”
“What if they can’t afford anywhere?”
Elpida frowned. “I don’t understand. I’m sorry.”
“Just humour me,” Vicky whispered. “What happens if somebody can’t find a place to live? Poverty. Can’t afford anywhere. What happens?”
Elpida shrugged. “They’d have to go down a floor. Maybe a lot of floors, but there’s always open space in the Skirts. Up-Spire people think the Skirts are slums, but they have the same network access as anybody else. Telokopolis responds to the meanest Skirter the same as any Up-Spire noble. And even Up-Spire there’s public dormitories, canteens, things like that. Nobody can stop the city from making them.” Elpida almost laughed. “Even the Civitas can’t defy Telokopolis itself.”
Vicky frowned. “What do you mean, ‘stop the city from making them’?”
Elpida shrugged again. “Telokopolis provides. Any Skirt dweller can stand by a blank wall and request a room. The city responds to any human.”
Vicky’s frown turned from hostile suspicion to amazement. “Okay. Alright. What if there’s no free space to make a room?”
“Go down a floor.”
Vicky sighed. “And what if there’s no space on any floor? What if somebody else has taken it all?”
Elpida laughed softly. “Telokopolis has space for ten times the current population. That’s what the last surveys said.”
“You survey your own city? Wait, ten times? How big did you say the population is again? Or … was. Sorry.”
“Nine hundred million.”
Vicky bit her tongue, then said: “You had slums and nobles, but infinite replication technology. I don’t get it. And your city grows rooms? When people request them?”
Elpida nodded. “The monochalkum layer can’t be expanded, but the interior of the city is endless as long as it’s fed nanomachines every century or so. Not nanomachines like we’re made of now, I think. Ours were different. But yes, there’s always somewhere to live. The city extrudes new spaces as required. The Builders, their generation, they were … beyond us, the people in my time. They made a miracle. Telokopolis is home, for all humanity.” She sighed softly and recited: “The greatest home-machine ever built by human love and human labour, crystallised into the foundations and returned for eternity, refreshed with each generation of effort, from all, to all, for all.” Elpida pulled a self-conscious smile. “Not my words. That’s just a piece of history every schoolchild learns.” Her turn to frown at Vicky. “‘Homeless’ would be like … like … leaving somebody out on the plateau, or in the green.” She uttered a tiny, bitter laugh. “Even the Covenanters wouldn’t do that. In your time, people were left out in the green?”
Vicky smiled back, though still a little suspicious. “Yeah. You could say that.”
Elpida shook her head. “Telokopolis is for all. For you too.”
But not for us, she thought. Not for me, or Howl, or Silla, or Metris, or all the others. Telokopolis was not for Elpida. She had been cast out, into death.
Vicky was laughing softly. “Thanks, super-soldier girl. Sounds like you had a good time. Sparring and sex, hey? You … Elpi?”
Elpida couldn’t see clearly. Her vision was blurred. “My cadre. my clade-sisters. My— Howl. Howl. You asked who— Howl was my second. Howl was my … ”
Elpida felt tears running down her cheeks.
The dam broke.
Necromancers and revenants and zombies, giant worms and unspeakable monsters and self-regrowing cities, and … wait, was this science fiction, or fantasy? Well, whichever it is, I dearly hope you are enjoying reading it as much as I am writing it, because I am loving this story and where it’s going. I have such sights to show you! Oh, poor Elpida. She’s rather tightly wound, shall we say.
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 4.5k words. Please, do feel free to wait until there’s plenty more to read! I’m still trying to somehow put out more chapters ahead, maybe soon!
There’s also a TopWebFiction entry, for voting. Voting makes the story go up the rankings, which helps more people see it!
Thank you so much for reading my little story. More soon. Lots more.
vulnus – 3.3
Discussion of suicide
Discussion of cannibalism
Elpida held her breath — then remembered she didn’t need to breathe.
The sensory assault from the worm-guard — as Pira had called it — intensified. Elpida’s eyes watered; her nose ran with mucus. The tips of her fingers and toes started to go numb; her skin tingled all over, her jaw ached, and her throat tried to close up. Her heart jerked and spasmed, desperate to draw a cough from her lungs. A high-pitched ringing grew louder and louder inside her skull. White flecks danced in her peripheral vision, speckling the dim glow-stick illumination on the walls of the concrete bunker.
Active scanning. Perhaps a high-powered electromagnetic field. Likely beyond Elpida’s understanding.
Pira stood frozen, face gone grey-pale, moving only her eyes. Vicky was gritting her teeth, her muscular frame clenched tight. Kagami’s face was scrunched in a frozen scream. Down in the corner, Ilyusha clamped a black-red bionic hand over Amina’s mouth and nose, smothering her hyperventilating panic. Amina struggled briefly; Ilyusha coiled around her like a snake, pinning her limbs and cradling her skull until Amina could only twitch and whimper. Atyle suffered in rapt silence, cross-legged and straight-backed, tears and snot running down her face as she stared at the wall behind Elpida.
A claw tapped the concrete — on the exterior wall behind Elpida’s head. Tink — tink — tink went those taps, climbing the bunker and mounting the roof in three steps. Click against the left wall, clack against the right; the worm-guard had a long reach.
Pira’s eyes followed the sound, then jumped to the barred door.
Tap-tap, tap-tap. The worm-guard probed the door-frame — then pressed: creeeeeak complained the metal. The door flexed inward.
Amina whined in Ilyusha’s grip. Kagami swallowed too loudly. Vicky breathed an inaudible curse.
Elpida looked down at the coilgun through a haze of stinging tears. How quickly could she grab the receiver and power up the magnetic containment? Fast enough to shoot whatever was about to burst through that door? She flexed her numb fingers and prepared to leap.
Creeeeak went the metal — and then stopped.
The door stayed shut. The worm-guard lost interest. Tap-click went claws against the roof, once, twice, three times, and then the worm-guard stopped moving.
Nerve endings quivered. Skin tingled and itched. Joints burned. Eyes watered. Seconds dragged out in perfect silence and imperfect stillness. Nobody breathed. Even Amina managed to stop whimpering. Ilyusha’s face was buried in Amina’s shoulder. Elpida swallowed a cough. But the worm-guard did not go away.
Elpida moved her lips, no sound: “Pira. Pira.”
Pira looked. Elpida indicated the coilgun with a flicker of her eyes. Pira shook her head by less than an inch.
Elpida counted the seconds: sixty, one-twenty, one-eighty, and still the worm-guard did not move on. Vicky was shaking with muscle tension, eyes screwed shut. Kagami looked like she was about to suffer a full-blown panic attack, face completely drained of colour, pupils dilated, mouth hanging open, skin caked with sweat, staring upward at the roof of the bunker. Amina had gone limp and dead-eyed in Ilyusha’s grip. Ilyusha seemed almost the same — slack and shut down.
Elpida mouthed again: “Pira. We can’t stay like this forever.”
Pira was drenched with sweat as well. She whispered just loud enough to carry, “It’s not moving. It should be moving. This isn’t normal.”
Pira shook her head again. “Don’t touch the gun.”
Elpida looked at the concrete ceiling and whispered: “Graveworm?”
Pira whispered, “Yes, worm-guard. Our only chance is to stay beneath its threat targeting threshold. Do not touch the coil—”
Dark red light suddenly stabbed through the half-open door to the bunker’s tiny corridor; a flicker-wash of active scanning equipment moving over the room at the other end. The worm-guard had entered the bunker through the open slit-window in the other room, the one Kagami had been looking through earlier.
Elpida saw a mass of pale tendrils fill the corridor, rushing toward them.
She dived for the coilgun.
Rrrrrrr — peng!
A deafening noise ripped through the air and the bunker walls alike: engine-discharge, electric crackle, and cannon, all in one.
Pira stumbled and winced. Kagami cried out and covered her ears. Vicky grunted, sagging. Amina screamed into Ilyusha’s hand, and Ilyusha hissed and slapped the wall with her tail. Even Atyle bowed her head in pain.
And Elpida came up with the coilgun receiver. She thumbed the power-tank activation and aimed at the half-open door — but the pale tendrils were gone, whipped away in an instant, followed a split-second later by a rapid tink-tink-tink-tink of the departing worm-guard.
The sensory assault lifted. Elpida coughed hard. Her chest and heart ached and burned; the dive had cost her. She killed the coilgun power and gently placed the receiver on the floor, but she couldn’t stand up yet. Her head was ringing, her half-closed wounds were screaming, and her vision was wavering.
Pira took several slow, deep, deliberate breaths. Ilyusha uncoiled from around Amina. The younger girl was crying softly as she hugged her knees to her chest.
Kagami panted: “What— the fuck—”
“I told you,” Pira said. “Worm-guard.”
“Somebody shot it.” Pira pulled herself upright and wiped tears and mucus on her sleeve. “Long range, high-powered, enough to classify as a threat. That sound we heard, that was the worm-guard’s anti-ballistic countermeasures.”
Elpida pushed herself up to her feet. She coughed blood into a hand. “Whoever it was just saved us.”
“By accident,” said Pira. “Lone worm-guard, this far out, that’s a lot of nanomachines. If you can ingest them.”
Kagami snapped, “No! No, I mean what the fuck was I looking at!? What the fuck was that!? That wasn’t biological or mechanical or anywhere in between.” She pulled the auspex visor off her face and waved it in the air. “This was throwing up errors like I was staring into a fucking quasar. What was that!?”
Vicky made a pathetic attempt at a laugh. “Ow. Said it before, didn’t I? Sufficiently advanced technology, indistinguishable from magic. We just got buzzed by a dragon.”
Pira said, “I told you. Worm-guard.”
Atyle breathed as if coming down from an orgasm. “The machinery of the gods.”
Elpida swallowed another cough. She tasted blood. “Pira, are we safe now? Do we need to move?”
Pira answered: “We’re never safe. But moving would be worse. This group won’t have any chance in the open, not as we are now.”
“The worm-guard won’t come back?”
Pira shrugged. “No reason to.”
Kagami spat: “No reason?! That thing was hunting us! It crouched up there like it was fucking playing—”
Pira spoke over her, calm and cold. “It knew we were here before it arrived. We were not hiding from it. If it wanted to, it could have cut the roof off and fished us out, or cooked us through the walls without damaging the concrete. We stayed below the threat acquisition threshold, that’s all.” She nodded at the coilgun. “If it does return, grab that, aim somewhere, and pray. But I’ll be gone.”
Kagami hissed in frustration. She slapped her auspex visor into her lap.
Elpida said, “Everyone take a moment. Catch your breath. That was stressful and frightening, but we’re safe now. Vicky, are you okay?”
“No,” Vicky croaked. She laughed once, then winced, reaching toward the exposed red muscle and meat of her reattached arm. She weakly pulled the looted coat a little tighter over her shoulders. “I mean, yeah. I guess. I’m not hurt. That just sucked.”
Elpida said, “Ilyusha? Amina?”
Amina was crying, face buried in her knees, half-burrowed beneath the spare coats she’d been sleeping in. Ilyusha was leaning gently against her side. The heavily augmented girl looked drained and withdrawn; the fire had gone out of her lead-grey eyes. Her tail lay against the floor, unmoving. She gave Elpida a limp thumbs-up.
“Good job comforting her,” Elpida said. “Amina? Amina, we’re going to be safe now. We’re safe now.”
Amina whined into her knees: “No, we’re not.”
Everyone took a while to recover their composure. Kagami stewed in silence, chewing on a fingernail. Elpida paced to the stairs and back, testing her heart and chest muscles. Pira closed her eyes in silent meditation. Atyle just wiped her face, none the worse for wear.
After a moment, Elpida realised that Vicky was watching her. Elpida stopped pacing and stared back. She knew what was coming. She took a deep breath, coughed, and let it happen; if none of the others had spoken up, she would have said it herself.
Vicky said, slowly: “Pira, you mentioned that wasn’t normal behaviour? From the ‘worm-guard’, I mean?”
Pira opened her eyes. She glanced at the diagram she’d drawn on the wall, with the two circles around a graveworm. “We’re firmly in the safe zone. Worm-guard don’t come out this far unless they’ve picked up a threat. They don’t hunt us, not unless we’re threatening them or getting too close to the graveworm.”
Kagami pointed at Atyle. “Did she lead it back to us?”
Atyle shot Kagami a stony look.
Pira shook her head. “No. She was in the open for a long time. It would have caught her.”
Atyle said: “It would not.”
Vicky swallowed and said, “The logical conclusion is that it was after us. Specifically, I mean.”
Pira said, “No reason to. We’re not important.”
But Vicky and Kagami both looked at Elpida. So did Atyle. Pira followed their combined gazes. Ilyusha pulled a sneer and looked at the floor.
Vicky said, “Sorry Elpi. But you did talk to the thing.”
“Yes,” Kagami snapped. “You did, didn’t you?”
Pira frowned, confused rather than hostile. “You did what?”
“That’s correct,” Elpida said. “I spoke with the graveworm. More accurately, it spoke to me, and I responded.”
Pira’s stare was unreadable, but open. “Explain.”
“Down in the tomb, we entered the gravekeeper’s chamber. The interface — the corpse — it spoke to us, but it was speaking in riddles.”
“Poetry,” said Atyle.
Kagami snorted. “AI nonsense. It wasn’t speaking, not really. Just regurgitating. May as well have a conversation with a linear algebra equation.”
Pira said, “Yes, I’m familiar with that. Elpida, go on.”
“While the gravekeeper was speaking, a second voice spoke over it. But only to me. I have a brain implant called a neural lace.” Elpida tapped the back of her neck and felt once again the strange absence of the socket. “It’s meant to be paired with a mind-machine interface slot, but when we were resurrected, that was … missing. The neural lace is for direct machine communication, and mind-to-mind communication across a private noosphere. I don’t understand how, but something sent a broadcast directly into my neural lace. This voice heavily implied itself to be the graveworm.”
Pira looked around at the others. Kagami and Vicky both nodded. Kagami added: “She was speaking to a voice we couldn’t hear. That much is accurate.”
Vicky said, “She didn’t hide it or anything. Elpi, really, no offence.”
“None taken,” Elpida said. “Don’t worry.”
“You,” Pira said, nodding to Atyle. “Your eye, it’s high-spec enough for flesh-work. Does Elpida—”
Atyle said: “A metal spider cradling her head and spine, yes. She speaks truth.”
Elpida waited. The cross-examination didn’t offend her. The stakes were too high. Pira addressed her again: “What did it say?”
“It seemed amused,” Elpida explained. “It made comments which implied it was watching our progress through the tomb. It joked about acting as my ‘mission control’. It was surprised I could hear it talking; I think it wasn’t broadcasting on purpose, just speaking to itself, at first. But then it was disappointed that I wasn’t somebody else, somebody specific, as if it was looking for a particular person. It recognised Telokopolis — the name of my city. Then it seemed confused. Then stopped. It spoke again when we exited the tomb, with a warning about the Silico — the zombie. Then when the Silico arrived, the graveworm seemed resigned. It hasn’t spoken to me again.”
But Howl did, didn’t she? Elpida kept that fact to herself; that was just brain chemistry, yearning for love on the verge of death.
Pira looked Elpida up and down.
Kagami snorted. “You fucking called that thing after us.”
Elpida nodded. “Maybe I did.”
Commander, you doom us all, she thought. Same as with the cadre. If Kagami was right, Elpida should walk out of that door and into the dead city, alone, right then; she should have been left for dead, for the scavengers, for the ‘black rain’ of oblivion once again. If she was calling Silico monsters down on her comrades then she was a liability. She was no use at all. She was death for her sisters and comrades and cadre, all over again.
Kagami blinked at her. “I-I didn’t mean … I … ”
Elpida said, “It’s okay. You may be right.”
Pira sighed sharply. “I already explained. If that worm-guard wanted to kill us, we would be dead.”
Vicky croaked, “You don’t think it was protecting us, do you? Protecting Elpi?”
An uncomfortable look circled the bunker room. Ilyusha finally raised her eyes from the floor; she was grinning at that. Her tail stood up, waving slowly.
Atyle said, “Favoured of the gods.”
Vicky let out an uncomfortable, forced laugh. “Friends in high places.”
Elpida said, “We have no idea what was happening. And the graveworm hasn’t spoken to me again. Pira, you’ve never heard of somebody communicating with a graveworm before?”
Pira stared at Elpida for a very long moment, her eyes like lightning-washed skies in her pale, freckled face. Her flame-red hair was too dark in the dim light from the glow-sticks in Vicky’s lap. Elpida could read her without too much difficulty: Pira was trying to decide if Elpida could be trusted.
“No,” Pira said. “Never.” She glanced at Ilyusha too; the heavily augmented girl just shrugged.
“Have you ever met another person with a neural lace?” Elpida asked. Pira shook her head. Elpida’s heart lurched. She coughed. “Anybody with my phenotype? White hair, copper-brown skin? Wouldn’t be as tall as me, different facial structures, not true albinism, but—”
“No.” Pira shook her head. Then she added: “But I don’t know everything.”
Elpida forced herself to contain the disappointment. “Thank you.”
Pira sighed. “Hope is a dangerous thing, here. Your world is gone and everyone you knew is dead. The chances of running into somebody from your own time period is almost nil. The quicker you accept that, the easier it will go for you.”
Elpida forced herself to smile. “Thank you all the same. Pira, do you think that really was the graveworm, speaking to me?”
Pira said nothing. But her face was not quite as closed as before.
Kagami said, lemon-sharp: “Before we get distracted by morose philosophy or whining about the hopelessness of existence, Pira, you were explaining this absolute bullshit to us.” She gestured at the map and the diagram on the wall. “And you were avoiding a question. Or am I the only one who remembers?”
Elpida said, “No, I recall as well.”
Vicky said, “Oh, yeah, right. Beyond the graveworm line, right?”
Pira just stared at Elpida, as if still trying to make a decision. Then she glanced at the others, one by one — lingering perhaps a little longer on Atyle. Then she let out a long sigh and tapped the graveworm diagram again, on the worm itself.
“Everyone wants to get inside a graveworm.”
“Why?” Elpida asked.
“I already told you why. The graveworms are giant nanomachine forges. With enough nanomachines, you can do anything.”
Ilyusha barked. “Ha! Sure can.”
“The more nanos you consume, the more you can modify your body.” She nodded briefly toward Ilyusha, toward her non-human bionic limbs, her extendible claws, and her tail, which was now wagging in the air. “You can heal faster, move faster, endure more, change more. But there’s only so many ways to get large quantities of nanomachines.”
Kagami said, “Like eating each other.”
“Cannibalism is popular, yes. Especially on fresh resurrections. But we’re not the only fresh source each time a tomb opens. There’s the raw blue we took from the armoury, but also there’s machinery in the top floors of each tomb, manufacturing bionics, replacements, additions, specialised substances, experiments. That’s why everyone fights to be first in, to claim the resources and get back out again.”
Vicky scoffed. “Fucking hell. No solidarity? No banding together? This is it? The war of all against all. Barbarism.”
“Dog eat dog,” Kagami spat.
Ilyusha snorted: “Reptiles.”
Pira shrugged. “You can just stick close to the worm, absorb the ambient. You’ll survive, but it’ll never get you far enough.”
Elpida said: “Far enough to leave. Am I correct?”
“Beyond the graveworm line,” Vicky said. “Shit.”
Pira stared at Elpida for another long moment, judging or deciding. Then she nodded. “There are revenants who live beyond the graveworm safe zone, but not many. I already told you: only the most heavily augmented can survive out there.”
Kagami waved a hand at Ilyusha. “Like her?”
Ilyusha cackled. “Like meeee!”
“Not even close,” said Pira.
Elpida said, “I see the logic here and I don’t like it.”
Pira nodded. A moment of understanding passed between them.
Elpida said, “Anybody who ingests enough nanomachinery to leave the graveworm is either skilled at securing resources from the tombs, or a successful cannibal. Or both.”
“Yes,” said Pira.
“Fuck me,” said Vicky. “Oh, fuck. Great.”
Amina sobbed into her knees. Ilyusha put an arm around her shoulders. Vicky was shaking her head in horror.
Pira said, slowly, staring at Elpida: “But if you could get inside a graveworm … ”
Elpida asked, “Has that ever been done?”
Pira shrugged. “There’s rumours.”
Elpida already saw the logic: there would be no trek to Telokopolis — standing or ruined or dead or otherwise — while bound to the route of a graveworm. But she had spoken with the mountain-sized construct. Was Pira perhaps thinking the same thing? Elpida had no idea what Pira’s agenda was, but Pira had saved her from death before knowing any of that. Perhaps they had a goal in common, perhaps Pira could be trusted. Elpida wanted to trust her.
Kagami snorted a humourless laugh. “This world is a joke. This future is a joke. Who would make this? Who would allow this to continue?”
Ilyusha barked: “Us!”
Atyle spoke up, unconcerned. “We were reborn with our flesh already blessed by the machinery of the gods.” She gestured toward her bionic eye. “Why?”
“Yes,” Kagami hissed. She rapped her knuckles against one of her augmetic legs. “And it’s fucking perverse.”
Pira said, “The tombs tend to repair the parts which were missing in life. Original life. Sometimes you get reborn with your stock of nanos, too, but more often not. Permanent additions tend to stay.”
Vicky said, voice quivering: “Yeah. Yeah, I’ve got a bionic heart, right? You said that, Atyle. Bionic heart. I died with a chest wound. That fits. It fits.”
Elpida asked, “What happens when a revenant dies?”
Kagami snorted, “Aren’t you the answer to that, you zombie twice over? No offence.”
Pira said, “Killing one of us for real is not so easy. Destroy the brain, or remove enough biomass. With the latter, a revenant can still wait for a very long time, regrowing on ambient. But … ” She shook her head. “That’s a bad way to go insane. Better to give up.”
“Give up?” Elpida asked.
“Give up. Go back to the tombs. Make a deal.” She continued before Elpida could ask the obvious question: “The initial resurrection, like you right now, that’s free. The machines just do it, and no, I don’t know why. But from then on you have to have a reason.” She shrugged. “It seems to be different for every person who keeps coming back, but you have to give the machines a reason — the gravekeeper, or something behind the gravekeepers, it’s … ” She trailed off, sudden and hard. “It’s difficult to describe what it feels like. But you have to give them a reason. You have to make a deal.”
Kagami hissed: “So there is an exit button. Just die and choose to stay dead. Hooray.”
Elpida glanced down at her. “Kagami.”
“Alright, alright. I won’t blow my brains out. Yet.”
Vicky said, “What kind of reason?”
Pira answered. “Like I said, different for everyone.”
Pira shrugged. “Looking for another person. Returning to a group. It can get very abstract.” She looked at Kagami. “And it’s not as simple as choosing to stay dead. It’s not the same, when you’re dead. It’s not the same. You’ll make the decision to come back. You will.”
Pira’s voice was quivering; Elpida spoke up, quickly, changing the subject. “Pira, how long does it take to come back?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t recommend testing it.” Pira crunched the words out; wrong question, Elpida decided.
“Okay. Pira, what—”
“If you lose somebody, don’t count on finding her again.” Pira swallowed. “It’ll drive you insane as sure as lying in the same place for fifty years trying to regrow your own head. Give up.”
Silence fell over the little bunker room. Ilyusha scratched a claw against the concrete. Amina sobbed quietly into her knees. Kagami looked away. Pira blinked; Elpida wasn’t sure if she could see tears in her eyes. Maybe it was just the dim light.
Vicky cleared her throat, then winced with pain. “Can I ask a really weird question? I mean, yeah, all of this is weird. Too weird. But hey, this is the weirdest shit so far. How is this whole thing resurrecting people from earlier in history?” She gestured at herself with her good hand. “We had brain scanning technology. Or at least the Chinese did, not us in the GLR. But I never sat in a jack chair and had my brainwaves recorded or anything. How am I here?”
Pira said, a little hoarse: “I don’t know.”
Ilyusha went, “Pfffft.” Then: “Fuck the future. Future sucks.”
Atyle said, “Souls dragged from the well.”
Kagami grunted. “The paleo has a point. No offence, high priestess,” she said, dripping sarcasm. “In theory — in theory — it should be possible to rotate a consciousness into view from the impression left behind in the quantum foam, based on the entire life of that consciousness. But bodies, likenesses, actual human memories? Nonsense.” She mimed spitting on the floor. “The best you’d get is quantum data, but it would be mostly noise. The technology should be impossible to build, but, pah! We’re made of picomachines. Yesterday we had a conversation with an AI substrate enclosure that may as well be a man-made god. I’m about ready to believe rotation theory is fully capable of accessing the foam layer and extracting more than background noise.”
Everyone stared at her. Even Amina raised her tear-stained face.
Vicky said, “I think our automatic translation technology is struggling a bit.”
Kagami huffed. “Oh fuck you, womb-born.”
Vicky laughed and then winced in pain. “Fuck you too, spacer head.”
Amina spoke up, peering over her own knees: “God put our souls back. That’s all. We’re not meant to be here. We’re meant to be dead. God hates us all. God hates me.”
Ilyusha bumped her head against Amina’s shoulder. “Naaaaah. God’s a bitch.” Amina did not seem comforted.
Elpida considered the map on the wall, the tombs and the worms — and the other elements labelled in Pira’s hand, the ‘towers’ and the ‘ring segment’. She said: “Pira, you mentioned there’s two systems in operation here. What’s the other?”
Kagami said, “Yeah. Get on with it. Before the worm-guard comes back and we have to meet up with you again in a year’s time after we all get turned to paste.”
Pira stared at Kagami for a moment. Not a funny joke. Then she tapped the map on the wall. “The second system is the towers — there’s three of them in the city — and the segment which fell from the orbital ring, out to the west, beyond the city.”
Kagami’s eyes widened. Her jaw dropped. “Orbital ring? Did I hear that right?”
Vicky muttered, “Whoa. Okay. Spacer head shit got serious.”
Pira nodded. “Most of it’s still up there, as far as I’m aware. The fallen segment has been down a long time.”
Elpida said, “What’s an orbital ring?”
Kagami huffed. “An orbital ring. Geostationary space station around the whole planet. Probably where that mech dropped from.” She turned back to Pira, eyes alight. “When was it built? Do you know? We were trying to get a ring project under-way, but it can’t be ours, that would be a hundred million years old. More! Even our systems wouldn’t last that long, sadly; I’m not that arrogant, Luna wasn’t populated by gods. Is there a space elevator? A needle?”
Pira shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Tch! Have you ever been out there? To the fallen part?”
“Not myself. All this is second-hand information.” She glanced at Elpida, as if Elpida might understand a hidden meaning. “I’ve never been to the towers either. The worms never go near enough to reach them. I’ve tested. The only way to reach them would be to leave the graveworms behind.”
Was that what Pira wanted? To leave the worms behind, to journey to one of these towers? Elpida held her gaze, but Pira didn’t say it openly. Pira was watching her in return, with something in her eyes that Elpida did not recognise. Suspicion? Wariness? A kind of longing and curiosity? Elpida wanted to get her alone, talk to her alone, open her up.
“Still,” Kagami said. “A ring. Fuck.”
Pira continued. “All I know is the towers and the ring — or what’s left of it — are components of a global control system for the nanomachinery. Or they were, at one point.”
“Wait,” Vicky said. “How do you know this?”
“I said, all this is second-hand information. The worms and the tombs are an emergent system, I think. Nobody designed them. But the towers and the ring, those were made by people. The people who came just before this.”
Elpida said, “What are the towers for? What’s inside them?”
Pira stared at her, burning holes in Elpida’s face. “You really don’t know?”
“No. Why would I?”
“A graveworm spoke to you. And you don’t know. Really, zombie?”
“Pira,” Elpida said. “I don’t know. I’ve told you the whole truth. What’s in the towers? You want to reach them, don’t you? What’s in there?”
Pira said, “By now? Nothing. Wishful thinking. Dust and echoes.”
Kagami snorted, “Stop being a cryptic bitch.” But her tone was strained. Pira radiated hostility.
Elpida just said, “Pira?”
Pira was shaking as she spoke, very slowly: “If there’s any of them left, that’s where we’ll find a necromancer.”
Everyone wants that blue girl-juice, that frosty Mountain Dew, that power-up goo to grow new limbs and extrude weapons and leave the worms behind. But for what? Empty towers and broken rings? Or necromantic secrets from beyond the grave? Is there really nothing left, in this dead world?
There are now two pieces of fanart over on the Necroepilogos fanart page! One of Ilyusha, and one of the Silico/Zombie from the end of Arc 2! There’s also a memes page, with a few surreal offerings, growing rapidly …
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Thank you for reading! Hope you enjoyed! More next week!