This is hardly a good moment for reminiscing, but I keep thinking back to the time when I was a child, when the Abbas first found me. They took me away from my parents and put me with the Sisters instead, for training. I can barely remember my father now, yet I remember how he wept the day they took me away. My mother said nothing. I think she always distrusted my red hair, and was glad to see me go.

The angel who calls himself Fiver is interested by my red hair too. I saw him staring at it when my scarf slipped, and my hood fell back.

All the sisters have red hair. They say that is why the Abbas chose us in the first place, because of the colour of our hair. Red is the colour of blood, of anger, of violence. The Abbas have taught us that we need to control ourselves, that we need discipline. I have always accepted that as a truth to be adhered to. Why would Abba Macarius lie to me, after all?

Except now I see that my masters have been lying.

Lying to me, lying to all the Sisters.

I saw the Abba after the angel killed him.

He was not a man.

He was a thing, like the retread.

Now the sun is high in the sky, and we are fleeing the strange underground place where they tracked us down, fleeing my masters and their machines.

Machine is a new word for me.

That is what the angel called the little drones. Machines.

I recall seeing a few drones at the caves where I grew up with the Sisters. Like tiny, jewelled birds flitting between shadows.

I never thought much of them at the time. They were part of the holy mystery that is the Abbas. But now I understand that they are machines that belong to my Masters. Who are machines in their turn.

They are all “things” together. Not human, like I am.

I stop walking, my head buzzing like it’s full of wasps. I hope that I am human. But how can I be sure? I did not know my masters were not real. I was a fool. So perhaps I am not real either, and simply do not know it yet.

Fiver pushes me forward. ‘We need to hurry,’ he says urgently.

‘Am I human?’

He comes level with me, staring, though he cannot see my face. I’ve drawn my hood down, and my scarf is up around my mouth.

‘Pardon me?’

‘You are wise in the ways of machines, O Holy One.’ I meet his confused gaze. ‘Am I … human?’

‘Of course you’re human,’ he says sharply. ‘As human as I am. Which means we need to keep moving, Sister. Or none of us will be human for much longer.’

Suddenly, the air is alive with dust and noise. Sand swirls all around us, blinding me, and there is a terrible drumming sound too that nearly deafens me.

I clap my hands to my ears, and half-turn, staring up into the sky. The sun is immediately above us, white-gold and dazzling. But a huge black cloud seems to be descending from the skies, blocking out the sun, heading straight for us. Except it’s not a cloud, I realise, blinking at it through the sandstorm it seems to have generated.

Another machine! Hard and vast and silver, reflecting the sun like a mirror, it is lowering itself towards us with great menace.

‘Sir!’ The retread is shouting, pointing up at the descending machine. ‘We’re being hailed.’

‘Who by?’

‘They’re calling themselves the Tranchers.’

‘The who?’

‘Hold on.’ The retread hesitates, staring up into the sandstorm as though he can hear the machine speaking to him, then turns back to Fiver. There’s an odd note in his voice. ‘I just spoke to the pilot. He says Ann sent them.’

Thall sees a change come over the angel’s face. Pleasure? Relief?

Who is Ann?

‘Was the message coded?’ Fiver shouts back over the whirring sound of the machine.

The retread nods. ‘It checks out.’

‘Good enough for me.’

‘They’re opening up for us to starboard,’ the retread is saying slowly, as though relaying a message he’s still hearing. Like a message from the Maker. ‘We’ll have to board with the engines firing. The pilot says there’s another hopper inbound. Three minutes out.’

The pilot.

I do not know what that word means. But it sounds like it might mean master.

‘The Abbas must have detected them.’ Fiver grabs my arm and bundles me towards the machine as it touches down on the flying sand. The noise is terrifying to me, like a thousand desert birds screaming at once. He shouts into my ear, ‘Okay, we’ve got a ride out of here. Come on.’

‘We’re leaving?’ I panic, my feet sinking in the hot sands. ‘In that … beast?’

‘It’s a ship.’ He laughed. ‘A vessel. The kind that flies in the air. Right up into space, away from this world. Remember what I told you?’

‘But this is my home.’

‘More like your prison, Sister.’ Fiver drags my scarf down so he can see my face, and I don’t try to stop him, even though it’s forbidden and the sun is burning hot on my skin. His expression is stern. ‘Look, either we get in that ship or your friends flay us alive and use us as doormats. And I know what I prefer.’

The retread is already trudging through the whirling sand towards the machine, not waiting for us. ‘We have to hurry, sir!’

When I still don’t move, Fiver makes a groaning sound under his breath. He sounds as though he’s in pain. Which perhaps he is. ‘We came here to find you, Thall,’ he says, mysteriously. ‘And I’ll be damned if we’re leaving without you. Got that?’

I glance over my shoulder, back the way we came. Long-fallen walls and pillars lie buried in sand, and beyond that the desert stretches fierily into the distance. Smoke rises in a thin plume above the heat haze. Somewhere out there is the smouldering wreck where I found my angel last night, and let him lead me here, into the Forbidden Region, away from my cell, from my masters, even though I knew what we were doing was a crime.

Why did I do that?

Because you trust this man …

Man, not angel.

Fiver may not be an angel, as I stupidly thought at first. But at least he’s not a machine, like the Abbas turned out to be under their dark, hooded robes.

There’s a drone flying towards us across the sand-covered walls. I can see sun glinting off its spinning orb.

‘Look,’ I whisper, raising my arm to point.

Fiver turns his head, then mutters, ‘Shit,’ under his breath, and starts running towards the machine, dragging me after him.

My feet sink into hollows in the sand, my scarf whipped away in the wind, my hood flung back. It’s hard to see with sand blowing all around me, the air thick with tiny golden dust. But at least that means the drone may have trouble spotting us too.

Then the machine is there in front of us, vast and shiny, all curves and reflective surfaces, blinding me with sunlight. A metal slope has opened up like a door, leading up into its belly. I see Rack there, already inside, waving his hand.

‘Quick! They’re leaving!’

Fiver pushes me up the metal slope into the vessel, towards the retread. I’m thrown forward by the force of the door suddenly rising behind us, and lose my balance. Tumbling to my knees, I cry out as my head hits a hard wall.

Seconds later the sun glare is cut off and we’re in darkness. I am used to darkness, but not the smell of this place, a thick, choking stench that clogs up my throat and nostrils.

I feel my stomach lurch as the ground lifts and moves.

‘What … What’s happening?’

Fiver grins, holding out a hand to help me back to my feet. ‘We’re leaving Dar-Kohl,’ he says. ‘That’s what’s happening.’

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***

Fiver checks his suit for damage again while Thall stares at him. It’s difficult, feeling her bewildered gaze on his face, but he’s trying to remain sympathetic. It must be hard for her to grasp technology, given her upbringing in the Sisterhood, all wormy bread and day-long prayers. She’s probably known nothing else all her life but the caves and the grim, lonely cell she described to him back in the desert. But why does her education have to be his problem?

‘Rack?’

There’s no answer. The retread has disappeared. Probably gone to speak to this pilot Ann sent to pick them up, he decides, not too worried by their unexpected rescue.

The code was good, and the craft looks to be Maxoran, which makes perfect sense. Maxorans are notoriously anti-Pax, after all. But they’re also known as neutrals which makes it doubtful they would put themselves in danger of being boarded just to rescue a few stranded rebels. So money must have changed hands, or been promised at least. Money he’s in no position to deliver.

Which means he’s in Ann’s debt. Not a prospect he enjoys.

The Sister is shaking sand from her long red hair, the rhythmic movements of her long fingers almost mesmerising. He bends to retrieve his fallen blaster, wondering if they did the right thing by coming to find her.

From what Rack told him, the descendants of the Victorix are rounded up as pre-pubescent girls, carefully indoctrinated, taught to worship the Abbas and their dubious God, then forced to spend most of their adult lives holed up alone in desert cells, praying and eating something like three beans a day to survive. A lifestyle they seem to embrace with enthusiastic fervour. And she did strike him as a little obsessive back on Dar-Kohl, especially over the whole “angel” misunderstanding, not to mention how unhappy she seemed about leaving her prison.

He has to hand it to the Regulators. They really know how to break a person’s spirit. And the best part is, their victims don’t even understand they’re being broken.

Or why.

We came here to find you, Thall.

That much is true. And I hope she’s going to prove as useful as Rack believe she will, he thinks, watching Thall stare about the ship’s hold with wide, panicked eyes. After everything they’ve been through to find and bring back a Sister, it would be horrific to discover she’s no damn use at all.

So long as she has the Victorix gene, he tells himself, I’ll be happy.

Her red hair makes that almost a certainty.

After the war, the Pax Treaty effectively prevented the Regulators from exterminating their red-haired enemy. Or not without causing outrage among their more liberated citizens. So some ingenious bastard had come up with the Sisterhood. The rehabilitation program was simple: round up any females born with the Victorix gene – easily spotted, as it tends to be accompanied by flaming red hair –and enforce a life of religious solitude out in the desert, all the while maintaining absolute secrecy around the program.

As a method of preventing their enemy from breeding, turning the Victorix into a bunch of religious zealots would seem to be working. Nearly five generations have passed since the war, and according to the records, fewer than a dozen new Victorix girls were found in the last culling. So unless there are Victorix living free and undetected outside the controlled settlement at Dar-Kohl, this young woman is among the last of her kind.

Small wonder she’s freaked by the whole take-off thing, he thinks, watching her grope her way along the wall of the hold. First drones, and the shock of discovering that her masters were not human; now spaceships, interstellar travel, and the shocks still to come …

‘Hey, Sister,’ he says, meeting her gaze, ‘look, it’s going to be fine. Just stick with me and – ’

A booming voice interrupts him through the intercom, deafening in the narrow space. ‘Fiver Adalli, you underfed, groinless bastard, you still owe me big time from that night we spent in The Golden Bed on Delta Illutian. The night before you did a runner and stuck me with the bill. Those double-jointed whores don’t come cheap, you know.’ There was an ominous pause. ‘Or did you think I’d just walk away and forget about that kind of money?’

‘Erm … ’

The hold door slides open before he can pick up his weapon, and a second later, he’s being squeezed in an unlikely bear-hug by a man almost half his size. Behind him is Rack, looking surprisingly pleased with himself for a retread.

Fiver laughs, disentangling himself and stepping back with both hands palm-up in the traditional Maxoran greeting.

‘I knew you’d catch up with me one day,’ he says, and hopes the Maxoran has not lost his senses of humour. ‘It’s good to see you, Paul. How are you?’

Paul Kiernan, once top rigger for the Maxoran fleet, now better-known as a Darkling Pirate and a fugitive from a probably invented murder rap. Dark-haired and bearded, with slanted blue eyes, he stands about the height of a twelve-year-old boy, but with muscles of steel and an electra shield-suit that doubles as a weapon. And he hates the Regulators almost as much as Fiver does.

‘Better for knowing I’m about to be fifteen hundred crat richer.’ Only Paul is not looking at him. He’s turned to stare at the Sister, his blue eyes narrowing to slits in the dark space as he studies first her face and long, sweeping robe, then her tumble of red hair. ‘But who’s this beauty?’

The Sister stares back at Paul sombrely, then holds out a slender hand.

‘I am Thall, of the Sisterhood of Dar-Kohl.’ Her voice is surprisingly calm, given what’s happened to her in the last few hours. ‘Are you … the pilot?’