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‘SHE’S DEAD! SHE’S dead!’ screamed Djalo.
The woman wept and clung to the torso. The frozen eyes stared upwards, offering her little support. ‘No not! No not! She’s still there, she’s still in there, we can bring her back, we can, we can get her to the hospital...’
‘There’s no Electric to use the hospital with!’ Djalo tried to keep the torch from the glistening (and wide) trail of blood, but it was difficult as he tried to drag the woman along and separate her hand. She was clearly injured herself, but it was impossible to tell how much blood was hers. He’d never seen gore. He hadn’t really known what it looked like on the outside. The woman shook him violently for a second, escaping his grip, and clutched the scarred object to her chest, the loose arms and head flapping about uselessly and the torn entrails washing over her lap. She wept into its neck, smearing her tears on its skin and its grime on her face. She was clearly in shock. Djalo didn’t know what he was in.
‘Now! Now!’ wailed Garner, bounding out of the darkness ahead of them with the case bouncing in his hands. His fallen face was on the verge of tears also, but in terror. The darkness behind them loomed ominously.
‘...I was like this,’ sobbed the woman, hiccuping, ‘I was like this, and they, they thought I was d-d-dead, we can take her back, we can—’
‘There’s no time!’ Garner screeched in her face, before looking up at Djalo, and bolted off again. ‘They’re coming, they’re coming...’
Garner had said he knew another way out. A nearer way. It was quite clear to Djalo that Garner knew a lot of things, but he’d not wanted to argue, not with those bodies still waiting back up there, staring at empty skies beneath their visors. The woman paused, and held the torso’s shoulders away from her a second. She looked up at Djalo. ‘It’s them. It’s them.’
Djalo frowned, weighing up his desire to flee.
‘The Crimson Republic?’ he ventured. She nodded, biting her lip. His eyes looked down the mighty avenue again, but he didn’t flash the torch — he had no desire to actually see. There was nothing, nothing yet. Maybe some sounds far away. Hopefully he was making them up. He tore one of her arms away, hauled her up over his shoulder, and strode off, away.
Garner waited behind the D-polic, wide-eyed. The clearance code was passed through the door; it slid open; they walked through; it shut behind them. Alone in the corridor, they ran like hell to the end with a waiting lift.
Garner had never had nightmares.
Onwards, through the dark passages and up lifts...
He’d never seen monsters.
...Past guards and sentries, who they’d walk past slowly, and act awfully normal towards, on their way out of the underground complex.
Were they Democracy things?
Was that what happened to anyone who went against the Empire?
Maybe they were everywhere.
They entered the reception area, and signed out with the reception computer like you should do, and left the building, stepping out onto the fresh warm street with no-one around. The cloud had finally swept over the colony, and the all around lights were switching on, lights which shouldn’t have been switching on. Suddenly he could see the dark between the artificial lights — big strip lights, streetlights, the mighty floodlight at the dome’s apex; all lights that they should’ve stopped, all seven of them.
But they were turning on, and now there was only two.
And they had both seen horrible things.
They turned to each other, and promised they’d never speak to each other again. They left in opposite directions.
The supply ship was due in about a year. He’d get on it, and the next one, and get to some part of the Empire very far from here.
He hurried all the way home, walking mostly, but when he hoped people weren’t watching, running for his life.
She’d shot it, and now the thing writhed in the filth in front of her. Steill’s mind creased with this thing in front of her that was still moving, and leaking. The animals had shrunk back against the cragged walls, but didn’t seem overly horrified. Maybe they were used to it. Them. Steill, seeing it unblinking in its entirety, wasn’t. The thing called Neema was instead staring at her and her bolt-pistol, jaw hung open, savage wonder in the eyes. Eyes, thought Steill. So clean. Surrounded by so much filth.
Terrific moments passed by, barely seconds. All animal brains were calculating, or attempting so anyway. The cage was open. The metal flap, the plate on hinges, hung aside as clear fluid splashed up against it. The males were bunched up in another corner, with the Adams creature glaring at the open plate, and then hungrily at her. She pointed the gun at him, which seemed to make no difference to his demeanour at all. He tensed, and sprang forward. Steill felt already stacked up with fear from the thing that was still trying to crawl towards her, and simply felt confusion and fury at this animal with excited genitals again. Her finger twitched, but she knew there were pitifully few bolts left, and thrust her left fist at his head instead. The animal known as Adams crunched to the floor. Breathing heavily, she made as if to bring the gun down on its face, then stopped herself, then actually did. A small crack illustrated its new pain.
‘Tunnel?’ she asked the haggard Neema. ‘You sure? Sure?’
Neema nodded vigorously. ‘Shore, shore, yah. First you, you, that, that, that.’ She pointed at her, and the light on her helmet, and her gun. Steill gulped, setting eyes on the now still monstrosity lying in the doorway, and jumped up onto it. It held. She stepped forward quickly into the passage beyond, Neema scampering after her.
Adams lay there, his snarling fading into whimpering as dark blood pooled beneath his head. It was dark now Steill had gone, only the green worm-like creature lighting the space. Hishman bounced up to the fallen figure of Adams, and touched his limp arm, and felt the sting in his infected anus. Pulling round his useless arm and wedging it under Adams’ chin, he clawed his hand upon Adams’ forehead. Although there was only strength in one hand, he held its head with both, and smacked it downwards as hard as he could.
Steill found herself in an empty passageway which she knew wouldn’t be empty for long. It was circular, roughly cut in the rock but circular, and up ahead was a junction. Her last hope was that she wouldn’t see one of those things again, and she had none because she knew she would. Cords trailed on the ground in either direction, looking worryingly organic.
‘Light, light!’ hissed Neema, peering around and stretching her arms in fascination. She tried to stand up straight like Steill, but an obscene click made her clutch her back and fall down. Steill heard this and spun round and pulled her up. In the dark Neema winced, and smiled.
The further passageways were empty also, which made Steill more afraid. In hurrying onwards she accidentally trod on one of the wires which burst. They both looked down. Hundreds upon thousands of tiny worms were crawling over her bloodied boot and up her leg. Some glowed blue soundlessly. A noise from behind the following Hishman, far back down the rough wormhole tunnel, shot past them. It was no more than a click, a crunch, but something heavy. Neema let out a low whine under her breath and scampered forwards; Steill just gritted her teeth with angst. She tried to stay as soft as she could padding after Neema, struggling to aim the light far enough ahead. The moan they heard from the left upon reaching a split in the tunnel nearly brought them to their knees; all three froze and hurled glances down the opposite passage. Steill’s light swung away and back again to show the monstrous bulk blocking the way ahead and her breathing faltered for moments; Neema chattered with her mouth and bit her knuckles. Steill guessed the crazy anxiety in her face was because she knew this was the way; hell knew where the other passage went. With just small glimpses of that thing crunching towards them, Hishman furtively inched into the blackness behind them.
‘Where?’ Steill looked down at Neema, who whined and pointed at the rumbling, moaning thing ahead. Another sound flashed past them from the way they’d come. Gulping deep breaths and glancing everywhere, she gripped her bolt pistol, aimed, and shot.
The same crippling moan did bring her to her knees, and she clutched her eyes, as the beast lurched then crashed to the ground. When she looked up again it was still moving, banging against and scratching the rock walls. With a snarl she dragged herself up and took Neema’s shivering wrist, nearly falling when she put sudden pressure on her wounded foot, and they hurried onwards, carefully jumping onto and over the dying monster. The pistol held itself out in front of her. Steill knew there could only be a few bolts left. And bringing themselves deeper into the heart of the maelstrom of bestial noise, she saw the tunnel widen, and more cords trail along the ground and above them. Flashing a glance behind them, there were two following. Panic engulfed her brain. They passed more tunnels branching off with more denizens moaning at them, and more metal plates with hinges set into the walls that looked like doors but still had no panel or switch. The cords pulsed with blue light, such was the intensity inside them, against the background inferno of rumbling that shook her skull. Neema kept insisting it was the right way, until they came to a small balcony, that looked out on a very large chamber.
Steill saw the dull green haze hang beneath them like an infra-red sunset. Individual green worms could be picked out, and intense, articulate flashes of blue burst around between the huge things that had turned up to see them. The moaning was a hurricane now. It swept through her like the stirring of krakens. Neema dropped to her knees and let out a whine. Steill gripped the pistol tightly and pointed it like a talisman, before realising the stupidity of such an idea, so just turned and ran. Neema scurried ahead of her into the devouring darkness, and Hishman bounced along behind, the useless arm flapping about merrily by itself. They passed tunnels and metal plates set into the wall; bright blue flashes streamed past them in the cords that lay on the ground. It was hard to tell if Neema was hurling herself along the passage (faster than Steill’s crippled foot could keep up with) with certainty rather than panic.
The rock shook. Steill missed her footing and came crashing to the floor with an agonised sob. The male found her and helped her up, while Neema scuttled back, pointing behind them with an anxious face at the sounds of wailing monsters closing in. Steill could hear them crunching into the rock. She desperately didn’t want to turn and see them. Then the rock shook again, and again, and again, like some leviathan beating the planet beneath them.
A fork in the passage hit them and Neema skidded to a halt, her puzzled face plummeting when the light showed beasts down both new tunnels, crunch-crunch-crunching towards them like walking fortresses. She gnashed her fingers and pointed to the right. Just then the cords’ blue flashes became scarlet bursts buzzing past them from that great chamber they’d left behind. The walls shook again, Steill wobbled, pointed, aimed, and fired. The thing screeched and collapsed forwards. Steill edged forwards towards it, waiting for it to slow and stop moving, then frantically broke into a run when she realised how close the things were behind her, hurtling over its retching bulk. With Neema scurrying past, she stamped on the fizzing tubes, which let loose the crimson light burning in the tunnel, and with her gloved hands threw the torn end into the middle of the passage. Thousands of the piercing bright worms scattered over the floor, the way ahead went dark, and she hurried onwards with a desperate mind and stomach.
Marcus’ foot was falling off when the tremor hit the buggy. He didn’t notice it for minutes though; long, steady minutes of driving blind with the ground rising and rocks threatening to destroy the entire vehicle. It wasn’t far now. It couldn’t be far now. The slow glow of the colony’s bubble, the sickly yellow of the street lights, was just visible off to the left; the steep ground was levelling off. The landing pad couldn’t be far away.
He just had to hope the gnawing feeling in his ankle didn’t get any worse. And that he didn’t have any hallucinations. The burning void in his guts was terrifying him. Warmth concentrated in the body’s core when the body was cold — he knew that for sure. So if someone was hungry, well — the nutrients would suck back to the stomach, right? It made sense. He could feel the nutrients sucking up through his veins into his stomach, the lashing pit of his stomach. Nervous glances at the fingers of his gloves didn’t help, especially with the horrible immediacy of his fingers not falling off. He’d never been this hungry before. No-one had.
Steill hurled herself into the wall of a new tunnel. It was the same, the same mad black tiny world full of her crazed shadows and shaking ground and the same unspeakable monstrosities down every other passage. The tubes were screaming red again, sometimes away from them, sometimes towards — it was impossible to tell what was the wrong way. Neema had stopped seeming certain long ago. There was just away, away from these things, and as far away from that black space of hell which had held just three human beings, not five. Sometimes the metal plates they rushed past were hanging open; she rarely had time to look, and when she did there was nothing within.
Neema skidded to a halt in front of her and they both collapsed gasping. Above another silent, roaring shake of the earth she heard Hishman staggering a little way behind them. Neema leapt up onto her face, and before Steill could react she was twisting the helmet round, as if to pull it off. Steill was momentarily stunned by this and punched the wretched creature sharply in the mouth; whining on the floor, Neema just pointed sideways into the darkness. She turned her head, and the light illuminated a further passage, with yet another fortress-like beast coming towards them as well as the ones chasing from behind. But just ahead was a widened space in the tunnel, and another dirty metal plate set in the wall, with green worms set above in a shape that didn’t seem accidental; things that could have been orifices or eyeballs shrank away from her bright yellow light, as the scarlet flashes blazed past either side of them. Neema was crying now, pointing at the looming thing’s bulk and yammering unintelligibly, ‘…taow-taow-taow-taow-taow-taow…’, and it was monumental seconds before Steill realised she was yelling the word “out” repeatedly. But it was noticeable her shunning of the worm-glyph on the wall. She must have recognised it. And whatever was behind it.
Nearly jumping out of her skin, Hishman tugged her shoulder and pointed frantically behind them. There didn’t seem to be much choice. Steill stared at her gun briefly, weighing it up and down in some vain attempt at judging how many bolts were left. There probably weren’t any. There wasn’t much choice, so she leapt up and threw herself into the metal plate, which immediately remained still and bruised her shoulder severely. She pushed and pushed... it was clearly a portal, like a door but with no switch to open it, and just a small metal arm protruding from the front. It wouldn’t move, and the unholy moaning of those things was frighteningly close, and it still wouldn’t move, until Hishman came up behind her and pulled the arm downwards and she collapsed inside as the plate flung open sideways.
It was a small dark room. A few green worms hung from above. There was a plinth ahead of her, a block standing proud of the rough floor. And as she stood up and stepped forward, she saw the beast standing beside it, and saw what was on that block, and screamed. Looking around, the corners of her eyes saw there were implements, tools, containers; articulate details so far missing in this wrong world of rocky blackness and nothing. Of human hell. To her left, a dead human floated ghostly and pale in a large tank. In front of her this thing stood, holding the Democracy flag she’d seen missing from the Watchtower all that time ago, holding it in strange many-jointed limbs, holding the flag. And there on the block, beneath the vast gaze of that behemoth, was Natasha, all of her, free and open for all to see.
The thing started wailing at her. Behind her was the heavy scraping sound of another thing in the passageway. There was another sweeping rumble as the earth shook again, and she shot the thing, she shot it, just once, but a million times in her head, shot it over and over again. It screeched and fell forwards, but she’d already turned and moved away so the other thing’s ponderous eyes could see it dying, there on the plinth, in the mess that was once Natasha.
‘Out! Out out out! Out out out!’ she found herself howling, gesturing wildly and angrily at this monster blocking her way. Its huge eyes rolled towards her, massive pupils shrinking in her light, trying to focus on the gun, then on the leaking monster behind her. It moaned terribly, blowing through her like a hideous low wind over empty plains. ‘Out out out out OUT!’ she screamed. It retreated slightly, mandibles or limbs or whatever they were clattering and snapping, and she followed it back out, and nearly puked over Hishman’s spasming body the beast had crushed in the doorway. The useless arm still twitched gleefully, spasming, cackling macabrely.
Almost hurling the gun at the thing to make it curl against the opposite wall, she saw Neema, wretched and crying beneath a third monstrosity that was watching, waiting. Shifting slowly, so slowly, over to Neema, she kept watching the things on both sides, eyeing their trailing limbs carefully. She nudged Neema, took a hand, tried to pull her over; Neema murmured and looked up through bleary eyes, pushing herself without hurry to her feet. The ground shook, and Steill turned furiously as she saw an appendage twitch closer. The other one shifted. Her savage gaze swung back and she waved the gun like some magic talisman in the thing’s face, or whatever you could call it. It remained still, but expectant, making small bubbles. Taking one of Neema’s wrists firmly, she edged round, slowly, carefully, nearly level with the beast in the now cramped tunnel.
The gun must have wavered for a split second, or she turned too soon. As she wearily stepped forwards, her foot in some wretched ruined state, and tugged Neema forward into that blissfully open space, something jerked. Neema stared up with wide open eyes, her face caked in snivel and filth. The thing moaned horribly once more as it held her leg and hips with some knotty jointed limb. She turned, shouting, barking at it, clicking the trigger uselessly. Neema held her with both hands, crying breathlessly and strained with frightened eyes. And Steill watched as it began to tear her apart.
The girl ran through the cold streets, hair ragged but clean, eyes bright but dirty. She gave off no breath. She gave off no breath, unlike all the wretched souls that lay in doorways and by streetlamps, huddled together, frightened together, starving together. Motionless bodies intermittently lined the avenues, although never far from the walls, never untidy. The girl ran through it all, under the cracked dome sky, not pausing once, not side-stepping at all. She knew where she was, and where she was going.
The Square opened out before her, and she slowed to a walk. No heavy breathing, no rise and fall of her ribcage. The fake flagstones beckoned her out into the centre, with the dead fountains and the Democracy seal hanging worthless and decrepit in the dark. Bloodied bodies hung around, appearing unsurprised and generally unimpressed with everything.
‘People of Fortium Rhegardé. The authorities of the cruel Democracy have failed to respond to or even acknowledge our threats. As such, we have been left no option. As of now, Fortium Rhegardé is under control of the Crimson Republic...’
Some eyes did watch her. Some scurried away as she stalked through them, small but with such upright demeanour, such unnatural authority. She reached the middle of the open space. And her eyes glowed red.
The icy silence was broken by a rumbling, a mechanical grinding, as the fabricated stone blocks before her sunk into the ground. Some bodies leapt up and scattered; some just fell into the gap contentedly. The blocks parted, and there in the gloom, steps led downwards, downwards.
It knew where it was. It had instructions.
It marched down into the darkness.