The drone is coming low and fast over the desert.
Fiver squints up into the dark, watching its approach out of one sand-filled eye. His head is still buzzing from the explosion, his mouth dry, tongue gritty. But he’ll need to concentrate if he’s to survive this.
Think, think, think.
From the pitch of its whine, the drone is old. Really old. Probably one of those pre-war, reconditioned units cluttering up the scrap markets of Ar-Men Minor. Unless some halfway skilled tech has modified its basic rig, it should have neither weapons capability nor heat sensors.
His lips twitch in a half-smile. First bit of good news since they broke atmos over Dar-Kol. Though if either of them so much as sneeze …
The drone reaches their position, and passes over without hesitation.
So far, so good.
It stops within a few lengths of the crash site, and hangs there in mid-air, no doubt surveying the burning wreckage for survivors. Its thin red beam picks out what’s left of the pod, then describes a slow circuit around its charred periphery.
Abruptly, it reverses, spins about, and swings back towards them, unerring as a bat in the darkness.
The drone stops directly above them, and Fiver listens with trepidation to the click and whirr of its lens.
‘Stay perfectly still,’ he breathes to the woman lying next to him.
The Sister does not respond. Which is a good thing. Motionless, her singed cloak pulled over her head, she should look to any observer, even to the drone’s crude but effective mechanical eye, like a random lump of debris from the crash.
And Fiver will look like a dead body, which is not far from the truth. He feels like he’ll never shake the smell of burning, and the buzz in his ears seems to be increasing. Or did the explosion perforate his eardrum?
A lump of debris. A dead body.
The best outcome he can hope for.
The drone turns slowly in place, still clicking. Preparing its report.
Fiver holds his breath.
Then the ancient reconnaissance unit starts up again and flies on, whining away across the desert, back the way it came. Returning to base, no doubt. Which their intel has suggested is a honeycomb of caves tucked below a ridge ten clicks past the eastern edge of the desert. Far enough to keep them safe for a short time. Not far enough to allow him to hang about. He has to move. And take this woman with him.
One of the Sisterhood. They didn’t even have to go looking. What are the chances? Or is this not so much coincidence as destiny?
Not that he believes in destiny. But Ann and the others do.
What did the Sister call him?
No, he must have been hallucinating that. Not to be marvelled at. His mind was blown for a few moments back then, immediately following the explosion: total head fry, his stomach queasy, legs like water. And where the hell is Rack? Did he make it?
The alternative is not something he wants to consider. He and Rack have been together a long time.
But they both took this mission on with the knowledge that it could be terminal. Out here on the scarred edge of oblivion, on the old war-rim, there are no medstations sophisticated enough to repair a retread. Let alone effect a full download in the event of catastrophic shell collapse.
As for himself …
Slowly, he sits up. And promptly vomits.
‘Sorry,’ he manages to say afterwards, sticking to plainspeak on the grounds that she does at least appear to understand it.
The Sister rolls over. Thankfully away from the steaming puddle of vomit, not towards it. Her eyes look up at him brightly from under her cloak.
He can’t see yet if she has the hair.
‘I didn’t know angels could puke.’
‘Oh yes, we puke.’ Fiver wipes his mouth on his sleeve, which is a mistake, as his shield, though malfunctioning after the explosion, makes no impact at all on the vomit and merely gives off an unpleasant buzzing sensation. He thumps the shield into standby mode, and tries again. Success. Then his brain, also malfunctioning post-blast, gropes slowly back to what she said. ‘Wait … Angels?’
‘You are an angel, aren’t you?’ She watches him anxiously, then adds, ‘Sent by our Maker to guide me in the Way. And maybe … ’ She looks about at the smouldering wreckage of his pod. ‘’To test me?’
Fiver stands up, dusting sand off … everywhere, actually. He gives up, realising it’s pointless.
‘Is this entire damn planet made of sand?’ he demands, then sees her bewilderment. She thinks you’re an angel. So deal with that first. ‘Sorry, I don’t do ‘ship.’
‘Worship. Religious dogma. ‘Ship.’
Her eyes widen, and her voice drops. There’s even a hint of menace in it. ‘You’re not an angel?’
‘Was I supposed to be?’
‘But you are … a Holy One. I saw you descend from the heavens.’
She stumbles to her feet too, coming to about his chest height. Tiny but fierce, Fiver thinks, taking a hurried step backwards as she jabs a finger in the direction of his groin. Though only because of their relative heights, he decides. She’s not purposely gesticulating at his tackle. Or he hopes she isn’t, because that could get awkward.
‘Burning like the lance of the Maker,’ she adds reverently.
‘Yeah, about that … ’ He looks round at the still smoking pod, and grimaces. ‘Not so much a lance as a … Well, it’s a pod.’
‘A pod,’ she repeats blankly.
‘Like a shuttle.’
‘Yes.’ He points to the night sky. High up into the blackness. ‘It came from a much larger vessel.’
Her eyes widen. ‘A vessel.’ This is a word she seems to understand. She nods, her look earnest and respectful. ‘Yes, like woman.’
‘Erm, no, not like that. That’s ‘ship again, and I told you, I don’t do that.’ The drone’s red light is out of sight now, he notices. ‘No more ‘ship, yeah?’
‘No more ‘ship.’
Fiver wonders how long it will take the drone to return to base, have its data downloaded – perhaps remotely, in flight – and then for a proper reconnaissance team to be put together and sent out. If they even decide to come out this deep into the desert, that is, chasing after a ton of burnt debris.
‘By vessel, I meant a ship. Not a woman.’
She screws up her face. ‘But you said … no ‘ship?’
‘Oh, no, no.’ He half laughs, but at his own idiocy. ‘Look, forget that. I meant a real ship. A space ship. You know, for transporting people from world to world.’
‘World to world?’
He meets her perplexed stare. ‘Shit.’ He rubs a hand over his forehead. Sand falls into his eyes, and he blinks it away irritably. ‘You don’t know about other worlds either?’
‘I only know the scriptures, Holy One.’
‘Holy One, I beg you most humbly, let me lead you back to my cell before the sun rises. We will be safer there. Forgive me, I cannot carry you. My hand …’ She pauses. ‘And I fear the heat of your descent has affected your brain.’
‘I wouldn’t be surprised.’
She looks at him dubiously. ‘Can you walk, Holy One?’
‘Honestly, I’m not that holy.’
He looks around, trying to gauge the direction they will need to take, and spots an odd, misshapen mass half-buried in sand a few lengths away.
His heart begins to thud violently.
‘Rack?’ He stumbles across to the retread and drops to his knees beside him. ‘Rack?’
‘That thing is not alive.’
Fiver’s head whips round. He stares at the woman. ‘You spoke to him?’
‘Of course not. It was like that when I found it.’ She sounds shocked. ‘Besides, that thing is not a he. It’s an abomination.’
‘Don’t talk about him like that,’ he snaps at her over his shoulder. ‘He’s a retread, and my friend.’
Fiver is surprised by his sudden surge of fury towards this woman, this stranger. But he tries to calm down, not to overreact.
She doesn’t understand, he tells himself. She’s been confronted by what is alien for the first time in her life, and she’s frightened by it. Not her fault. It’s the way she’s been taught to see the world as a Sister. If he had been taken away from his family as a child and stuck in a cell out in the middle of the desert and repeatedly told red was black, he would believe it too.
Besides, there are plenty out there who are not ‘shippers, who breathe the same dust as him, and still believe retreads to be abominations.
‘Forgive me, Holy One,’ she says in a shaking voice, and when Fiver looks round, the Sister is down on her knees, touching her forehead to the sand.
Well, whatever turns her on.
Ignoring her, he drives both arms into the sand under Rack’s molten body, counts silently to five, and then hoists him off the dunes with no small effort. Retreads are not lighter than humans, he reminds himself, staggering sideways a few steps under the weight. There’s more to them than just plasbone and circuits.
The face is gone, of course.
But he’s convinced there’s enough memory left for the consciousness still to be downloaded. Given the right facilities. Facilities he will not find on Dar-Kol. Which means another world. Which is almost certainly impossible now.
It’s worth the push, nonetheless.
‘Come on,’ he says, at least partly to himself.
Carrying Rack in his arms, he turns away from the smouldering wreckage of the pod, heading instead for where he saw the prison confines marked on screen just before the pod was targeted.
Vaguely, he hopes he’s going the right way. Otherwise they’re all dead.
After a moment, Fiver glances back.
The Sister is up off her knees and following him, though at a distance. Wary or respectful, he can’t be sure. But either will do, so long as they both get under cover before the drone – or any of its friends – returns.
Walking roughly west, it does not take Fiver long to locate the first subterranean stairway. It is harder without Rack, but they both studied the plans before leaving, and even given that the entire site must have been reclaimed by desert generations ago, the primary entrance to the prison is still clear from the jutting spars of the old gate tower, rising above the dunes like a pair of strange horns.
The sand is thinner here, giving way to strange slopes and undulations that suggest substructure. He follows a likely-looking path, then hears an odd clank under his boots, only slightly muffled by sand, and stops, still cradling Rack’s remains against his chest.
‘Here,’ he says, and starts kicking away the sand from what he guesses will be a concealed hatch.
She stands watching him from under her dark headscarf, the material wrapped so thick about her face, all he can see are her eyes.
‘Help me,’ he orders her.
She moves then, kneeling again to scoop away the sand with her hands. He wonders how much of her response is instinct and how much choice. Ann explained to him in bed once that the Sisterhood – or rather their predecessors – are bred to command, which is why they’re still so feared by the Paxers. Hence the years of mind-control and conditioning they’re forced to undergo from puberty, so the default response switches to obedience rather than command.
Fiver holds his breath as she works. It’s almost obscene to watch this creature debase herself at his feet, blithely unaware of her own power.
His logical mind is thinking, look at her, this is pointless. There’s nothing left here to salvage. She’s got even less hope than Rack of partial restoration, let alone a full reset.
Except she’s no retread, he reminds himself.
And there have been a few wild stories, filtering out of this dark rim over the years …
But that’s why I’m here, he thinks. To see if those stories were true. If there’s hope to be found here against the Pax and its deadly enforcement.
The sky is lightening, he realises.
Even as he looks up, wondering how hot the sun will be this far south, he hears a heavy, air-stirring buzz. Not the high whine of a drone this time.
A search party.
‘That’s it,’ he says, renewed urgency in his voice.
She’s partly uncovered the hatch.
‘Now feel for the release mechanism.’ He sees her frown. ‘It will probably be something like a … a door handle or catch.’
She fumbles about in the thin layer of sand still covering the metal hatch, then stops. Her eyes widen.
He nods. ‘Pull.’
She struggles with it, baring her teeth.
The back of one of her hands shows red scorch. Badly burnt, he realises.
She must be in severe pain, yet hasn’t complained. Then her headscarf slips, and light glints off an unruly shock of hair. Red as a planet on fire.
Not that he needed the confirmation. But it helps to be sure.
The mechanism suddenly releases with a loud click, perhaps for the first time in over a hundred and fifty years, maybe longer, and she gives a tiny bark of triumph.
‘Yeah, not bad,’ he says drily, ‘but let’s leave the celebrations until we’ve popped the damn hatch and got inside.’
Avoiding the sticky, eyeless mess of Rack’s head, he turns to look up at the faint flush of gold just setting light to the dark horizon. The droning buzz is growing steadily louder.
Even she has heard it now, a curious blankness in her face as she glances up, and then straightens.
‘We’ve got company again, yes.’
She makes no response.
He studies her eyes, desperately trying to read her. The search party must be within mental reach by now. Is this where her conditioning kicks in and the Sister betrays him?
But she stands motionless, arms by her sides, staring into the early light.
He adds, ‘This time, they’re likely to be armed. So open up the hatch. We’re going in.’