Weapon in hand, Fiver leads Rack and the Sister through the corridors, back to the place where he found the weapons’ store – locked, of course, but it had not taken long to find his way round the circuits – and the dull sheen of a computer terminal screen.

This he points out to Rack in a whisper. ‘See what you can do with that terminal,’ he tells the retread. ‘Look for a way out that doesn’t involve going back the way we just came. And if you can locate our friends – ’

‘Friends?’

‘The nasty people trying to kill us.’

‘Of course.’

‘Then that would be useful too.’

‘Yes, sir.’

Rack sets to work at once, trying to find a compatible interface with the terminal, and Fiver turns to check the way behind them is still clear of drones. The corridor they just negotiated is still dimly-lit and empty. But in the distance he can hear noise of some kind. A now-familiar clicking and whirring.

More drones. At least one, anyway.

Searching for them.

It’s only a matter of time before the drone and the body of the Abba are discovered. Once they repair the Abba, and the priest is able to tell them she’s down here, within the old complex itself, they will come in search of the Sister. And bring substantial reinforcements, if he knows anything about their kind.

Intruders are one thing. Thieves quite another.

Fiver glances at his friend. Rack doesn’t look too bad, he thinks, all things considered. All things being a crash landing, memory shut-down, near-total shell collapse, being shot at by drones, and then a reload from some ancient device that may have slipped in a few unpleasant extras alongside the task of repairing him.

Minor anomalies, Rack said. What the rock belt does that mean?

‘Holiness … ’

He turns to find the Sister at his elbow. Her hood is down, exposing a tangled mass of red hair and a pale, slender neck. Beautiful, yes. But the woman has an odd expression on her face. Like she’s just spat out a mouthful of sour gobsmilk.

But maybe that’s what passes for a smile on this sandpit of a planet.

‘Told you, I don’t do ‘ship. There’s nothing holy about me. Not unless one of those drones comes back and riddles me with holes.’ He can see she’s not following, and sighs. ‘Just call me Fiver, okay?’

She tries it on her tongue. ‘Fi-ver.’

‘Good. Yes, Thall?’

‘Where are we going, Fi-ver?’

‘Out of here,’ he replies shortly, looking beyond her down another unlit corridor. The place is a maze. What they need is a quick exit. If such a thing is even possible. ‘Then off-world.’ Her eyes widen, and he tries again to be patient. ‘I told you before, we need to get off Dar-Kohl before they find us and take you back.’

‘They will kill me.’

‘And us.’

‘My masters are not forgiving.’

‘Hence the getting-out-of-here thing.’ Fiver makes a face. ‘Look, try not to worry. Your masters aren’t real men, remember?”

She nods.

‘Plus, they’re not going to get anywhere near you.’ He throws open the busted grill to the weapons’ store and drags out some more weapons. Some he clanks onto his suit, where they stick, held in place by the magnetic field. Others he tosses down for Rack. There’s a near-shot, not too heavy, nicely balanced. This he hands to the Sister. ‘You ever use a gun before?’

She shakes her head silently.

‘You even know what a gun is?’

Again, the head shake.

‘Here.’ Briefly, he shows her how to arm, aim and fire the near-shot. ‘It kills people, okay? Like what you saw back there with your Abba. The charge won’t last forever though. So try not to shoot too often. It’s been kept charged off the main-frame. But once we’re on the move, it will only hold, what, ten hours’ charge?’

Her eyes lift to his face, utterly devoid of comprehension.

But stone cold beautiful.

‘Done, sir.’ Rack turns and catches him looking at her. He clears his throat as though in warning, or perhps embarrassment, which amuses Fiver. What kind of retread clears his throat? It’s not like he has a fucking larynx. ‘Sorry to interrupt.’

‘You’re not interrupting.’

‘I believe I may have located an alternative exit.’

‘Which way?’

Rack picks up two bolt dischargers and slaps them over his shoulder. He points down the unlit corridor behind Thall. ‘There’s a garbage chute on this level. A few minutes’ walk. It won’t be a comfortable ride. But it will be quick.’

‘Hold on. Won’t that just send us to some garbage dump?’

‘I’ve adjusted the controls so it should take us directly up to the surface, rather than the garbage collection area, which is three levels below us.’

‘Then let’s go.’

‘Sir.’

He turns, frowning back at the retread. ‘What?’

‘I also found our … friends.’

Fiver glances at Thall just in time to see her peering down the barrel of the near-shot. ‘Hey!’ He grabs the gun away from her, and shakes his head. ‘That’s the business end,’ he tells her sharply. ‘Don’t … Don’t ever do that again, okay?’

‘Business end,’ she repeats.

‘The end that kills people. Bang, bang, you’re dead.’ He sees her blankness, and shoves the near-shot under his suit belt. It was just slim enough to fit. She had no idea what the weapon could even do. ‘Tell you what, I’ll look after it for now. You can just … walk.’

She looks at him without saying anything.

Rack is still waiting.

‘Go on,’ Fiver says roughly, ‘where are the Abbas?’

‘On this level.’

‘Fuck.’

‘I’ve set up a little surprise for them.’

Fiver grins.

‘In fact,’ Rack continues calmly, ‘they should be reaching it any moment now.’

‘So we’d better move, I’m guessing?’

‘That would be advisable.’

They start walking, Rack taking the lead, Fiver just slightly behind Thall. The lights come on further along the corridor as they head into darkness, responding to their presence. Just as they reach the first bend, there’s an almighty bang somewhere behind them. The walls shudder, and a rush of hot air blows dust around them, sending its grim mist spiralling into their eyes and throats.

Thall stumbles, falling against the wall, and Rack steadies her.

‘What the hell?’ Fiver half-turns, staring over his shoulder down the long, dim corridor.

Behind them is a tiny burning glow that seems to expand steadily as he watches. Like a golden-red eye in the distance growing larger and larger, staring at them.

A fireball.

And it’s heading their way.

‘Run!’

Rack whirls and scoops the Sister up into his arms. She shrieks, but he pays no attention, already running. Fiver follows close behind, not daring to look back. Even though Rack moves at incredible speed, Fiver struggling to keep up, by the time they reach the next bend, the heat is at their backs, barely retarded by the many twists and turns in the underground network of corridors.

‘Here.’

A door opens in the wall ahead of them, and Rack throws the Sister inside, then bundles Fiver in after her. It’s a narrow space of reflective metal, lit up gold by the approaching fireball.

‘Shut the door, shut the door!’ Fiver yells.

There’s an agony of waiting while Rack, squeezed up against them in the tiny space, fumbles with the chute controls.

The fireball reaches them just as the door slides shut. Fiver shrinks back from its searing heat; his shield-suit should be proof against flame, even without full activation, but given the damage it sustained during the crash, he’s not keen to put that to the test.

There’s a pale light in the low ceiling of the chute. Behind him, he hears a cry and glances round to see the Sister pressing her cheek against the cold metal of the wall.

‘Hang on in there,’ Fiver tells her, but she does not respond.

The narrow chute rattles around them. His stomach is left behind as it soars straight upwards, passing all six sub-levels on its rapid way to the surface. Designed to convey inanimate garbage rather than people, the elevator makes no concessions to human physiology, leaving him shaken and nauseous, the sheer velocity of their precipitous ascent unpleasant. But at least its speed means they’ve outrun the fireball.

Fiver smiles, despite his sudden queasiness. With any luck, those pursuing them failed to escape the fire.

Suddenly, the top of the chute bursts open and they’re expelled in a heap, like so much garbage, tumbling together onto sandy grit and stone.

At first, he thinks the fire has come up the chute with them, the air is so hot. Then he sits up, fighting free of the folds of the Sister’s cloak, and uncovers his face to be dazzled by the brilliance of the sun directly overhead.

He’s disorientated, then realises what’s happened. When they went down inside the complex, it was still night time. Now it’s day, and the sun is high in the skies above Dar-Kohl. High and blindingly hot.

Rack is already on his feet, peering through the ruined complex to where a pinnacle of stone rises from the sand dunes. The sun bounces off his back as he turns, studying the lie of the sand drifts covering the ancient structures.

In the distance, a heat haze shimmers across the open desert, the vague purplish loom of a mountain range barely visible on the far horizon.

‘You okay?’ he asks Thall, and she nods. But he notices she has adjusted her hood and scarf to cover her face again, only her eyes visible.

Probably not a bad idea in this heat.

Rack comes back to speak to Fiver. ‘Over there,’ he says, cautiously lowering his voice, ‘is where they left their hopper. I picked up a residual heat signature when I was scanning for transports.’

‘Guarded?’

‘Only one drone, from what I could tell.’

Fiver grins, reaching over his back to demagnetize the super-large bolter he found in the weapons’ store. It brought down the other drone without too much difficulty. It should bring this one down too.

‘Then let’s get ourselves a transport.’

 

Read the next chapter: Chapter Thirteen