‘Level Minus Six,’ the voice of the elevator announces calmly, and the doors slide open on another pitch-black corridor.

Not very promising, Fiver thinks, peering out into nothing. But almost immediately, dim lights begin to flicker on throughout the corridor, presumably in response to their arrival.

‘Okay, better get moving. I’m guessing your friends won’t be far behind us.’ Fiver nudges his companion forward. ‘Ladies first.’

She stares at him uncomprehending, then does a kind of shuffle that takes her beyond the elevator doors and into the corridor.

‘Which way?’ she whispers.

There are more signs on the wall opposite the elevator. There’s less dust down here, he thinks, rubbing his sleeve across them. Less sand, less exposure to the outside atmosphere. All of which points to them finding the MedTech station in reasonable working order. If he can get it powered up, that is.

‘Left,’ he says, and points, in case she’s unsure.

She has not bothered to readjust her headscarf, and now he can see her face properly. Her eyes narrow at his words. ‘I know what left means,’ she says, and heads that way. ‘I am not a child.’

Sarcasm?

‘Not a child,’ he repeats, and falls in behind her, Rack’s heavy body bouncing against his thigh. ‘Got it.’

I need a weapon, he thinks, glancing over his shoulder down the long corridor. Given the search-and-destroy drone most likely headed their way he could do with a Mark II Kroll discharger, with at least thirty bolts loaded. That would be sweet.

But what are his chances of randomly stumbling across a weapons’ store down here? Unless he can reboot the computer system when they get to MedTech, and do a search of the facility. Though even then, the weapons would be ancient and probably non-functional by now.

They follow the signs for several turns, Fiver guiding the woman with little shoves and whispers, until the corridor opens up into a generous and better-lit atrium space. The corridor branches off the atrium five ways. Two corridors closed off by fully descended blast doors – has this place come under attack, he wonders, or have the door controls simply shorted out over time? – and the other three in almost total darkness.

Glancing up, he guesses that the once-transparent roof was designed to let in light from the upper levels. Now, of course, it’s covered in dust and debris, admitting little more than a pale gloom that glimmers eerily in the silence.

‘Hang on, let me just …’ Fiver hovers on the atrium threshold, warily considering the three unblocked corridors. Which one? He shifts forward a few paces, and a floating display screen opposite flickers into life, startling them both with a burst of cheerful music. ‘Shit.’

More motion sensors.

‘Welcome to Level Minus Six Atrium. For MedTech and HighLife, choose Passage Three. For all other services, follow instructions on your pass. Please be aware, this is a restricted zone.’ It’s a feminine voice, crackling and distorting as it cycles through the welcome message several times before the screen display –a smiling woman offering a handful of red Shira flowers to the viewer – begins to break into grey lines, then shifts abruptly to black partway through, ending disconcertingly on the word, ‘restricted’.

The Sister has backed against the wall, staring up at the floating display screen. ‘Wh – what was that?’ she whispers. ‘Who is she?’

‘No idea,’ he says shortly, but points to the corridor marked with a large orange three. ‘But that’s the way we need to go.’ When the Sister doesn’t move, still shocked by the intrusive noise and colour of the welcome screen, Fiver takes her by the elbow. Recently, in the dreary gloom behind them, he’s been hearing a high-pitched whirring noise, growing louder. Getting closer, in other words. ‘Time to move, Sister.’

‘No, I will go no further into the darkness.’ She is still cowering, trying to cover her face again. ‘What is this terrible place? There is a curse on it!’

‘Thall, do you hear that?’

Her face looks sickly, but at his gesture she cocks her head obediently to listen.

‘That’s a drone,’ he tells her. ‘Like the one that fired upon us above ground, only smaller, designed for spaces like this. They have sent it ahead to track us. When it discovers our position, it will probably try to kill us,’ he adds, hoping this will not drive her into noisy hysterics. ‘Us, do you understand? Not just me, but you too.’

To his relief, she does not become hysterical.

‘Why would it kill me?’ She glances at Rack, strapped to his hip, and her face is full of loathing. ‘You may be an angel, but you carry an Abomination with you. You cannot expect mercy.’ She straightens, no longer cowering. ‘I am a Desert Sister. I serve the great solitude. How am I any threat to my masters?’

‘Because those things are not your masters.’ When she stares up at him, uncomprehending, disbelieving, Fiver releases her. ‘Look, if you want to stay here, or even head back up top, I’m not going to stop you. But they will kill you if they catch you, make no mistake about it. You’ve seen too much to be allowed back with the other Sisters. To spread the word of what you found down here.’

Thall says nothing, but he knows she has understood.

‘So you can wait here, and be killed like a rabbit in a trap.’ With a shrug, he leaves her behind, heading towards the orange passageway without looking back. ‘Or you can come with me, and hope I find a weapon before your “masters” find us.’

He has gone about ten paces down the corridor when he hears her running behind him, her steps fast and light, and smiles to himself.

‘What did you mean by that?’ she demands, catching up with him.

‘By what?’

‘You said, those things are not your masters.’ She watches him, and again he senses the latent power in her that he’d felt in the desert, and feels an excitement that makes the loss of Rack almost bearable. Perhaps they can get out of this alive, after all. ‘What does that mean?’

He hesitates, then shakes his head. ‘There’s no time,’ he says. ‘Later, once I’ve … ’ He stops, studying the sign ahead. ‘Here, this is it. MedTech.’

This hover panel is only lightly covered with dust. It works first time. The door to the MedTech facility slides open soundlessly, lights coming on inside at the same time. No people though, of course. Nobody behind the counter, no technicians on hand to welcome new patients.

Like everywhere else down here, MedTech is devoid of life, and has been for a very long time.

Fiver nods her inside, then listens back along the corridor.

No sound at all. Perhaps he was imagining the sound of that drone before. Or perhaps they’ve lost their pursuers.

Unlikely, he thinks drily, but enters the facility, waving the door shut after them.

The MedTech welcome area is cold. Even colder than the corridor. Thall is shivering, wrapped in her cloak. Rapidly, he scans the door signs, then chooses Resuscitation, ushering her through into the next room. The place is better equipped than he had feared, and although the medstation cradle looks narrow, there is just enough space to accommodate a Retread.

Running an experienced hand over the controls, Fiver manages to get the unit powered up and humming, then checks the cerebral link for compatibility.

The green light comes on. But it’s flashing.

No contact.

He tries again, impatient, all the time listening for sounds of drone pursuit. The design is old-fashioned, and it takes longer than is entirely comfortable to establish a link with Rack’s circuitry. But eventually the green light on the cradle stops its intermittent flashing, signalling that it’s ready for download.

Only then does he realise Thall is still at his elbow, watching every move. He looks round impatiently. The wall seating is dusty but seems comfortable. He points to it. ‘Sit there. Don’t make a sound.’

She glares at him. ‘Why?’

‘I don’t have time to explain – ’

‘You don’t need to explain. We are here for that thing,’ she says, and shudders again, averting her eyes from Rack’s molten features. ‘You wish to … mend it.’

He is surprised. ‘Yes.’

‘Then why can I not help?’ She glances back at the door as though nervous. ‘Once you have mended the Abomination, we can leave, yes?’

‘Yes,’ he repeated.

‘We will be safer in my cell. I know the way back across the desert.’ Her voice is low and strained. ‘I do not like this place. It is not natural.’

He does not have the heart to admit that she will never be going back to her cell. That if they do not die here in this dusty maze of tunnels and disused rooms, he intends to take her off-world.

If he can steal a starcraft, that is.

Fiver almost laughs at his own futile optimism. The reality is they will both die down here in the bowels of this long-forsaken complex. But the earnest look on her face is so engaging, it’s hard not to at least hope for a better outcome.

‘You want to help?’ He points at the seating again. ‘Then sit and be quiet.’

‘I shall stand.’

‘Fine,’ he says wearily. ‘But not a peep, okay?’

He starts to unstrap Rack as gently as he can, taking care not to damage the Retread any further, though the web of fragma particles that once made up his shield-suit have all but disintegrated, leaving nothing but netting to contain the buckled plasbone beneath. Arranging each composite part along the deep grooves of the medstation cradle, he sets the head unit in place last, then drags the med-shield across, and hits Resuscitate.

His hands are trembling, he realises, and tries to hide the tremor by dusting himself off, his own shield-suit coated in tiny fragments of burnt plasbone, fragma and sand.

Like Thall, he can’t bring himself to look at Rack properly. Not the face.

It’s not a face anymore.

The machine hums busily, rebuilding the Retread. Plasbone can easily be repaired in an early model cradle like this, he tells himself. Not to its original standard, of course, but close enough until they reach civilization. Even his severed circuits can be fused together again, their integrity repaired.

But what about the consciousness download?

Every sixty seconds, a Retread’s consciousness is backed-up securely to the central data drive, the whole drive shielded with high-grade SupaTuff, where it ought to have been protected from the worst of the blast. Except that he can see parts of the data drive exposed through the shell casing of the head.

Exposed and partially molten.

He can almost hear Rack’s voice in his head, calmly pointing out the obvious. Where catastrophic shell collapse occurs, no amount of shielding can protect the drive, and the potential for damage increases to the point where full data recovery becomes unlikely. Right now though, even a flawed or compromised data reset would be better than none.

‘Come on, Rack,’ he mutters, watching the green light flash again as the download begins. ‘I need you, buddy.’

He steps back, and sees her staring at the medstation. Her headscarf has been pushed back fully, revealing her face in the eerie green glow of the medstation lights.

‘It could take a while,’ he tells her. ‘I’m going to take a quick look down the corridor. I need you to wait here, okay?’

She transfers her intent gaze to his face, studying him. ‘You wish to find weapons.’

‘Yes.’ Damn, that’s spooky.

She says firmly, ‘I shall come with you.’

‘No, I need you to stay here. Sit, watch the machine do its work. I’ll only be a few secs.’

‘Don’t leave me alone.’

She’s not pleading, he realises, feeling the tug at his consciousness. That was a command.

She does not look at the machine again. Fear seems to flicker in her eyes. The Sister is afraid, he realises. But of what? Being discovered here by her so-called masters? Or being left alone with the ‘Abomination’?

His lip curls.

‘Stay here,’ he repeats, and heads for the door. ‘If anyone comes … hide.’

When Fiver looks back, Thall has shrunk against the wall. She’s hiding the lower part of her face beneath her scarf again, but her unwavering gaze is fixed on his face.

No, not fear, he decides, reassessing that stare.

Defiance.

 

NEXT CHAPTER