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The click of small claws against the steel leg of the table told me it was climbing the far end. The thing must have lodestones for claws: no creature the size of a rabbit could find purchase on the metal otherwise.
I freed the second band and started on the third … paused … looked about. Two silver legs hooked over the far end of the table. I leaned back and reached out for the stand holding the drug flasks, their tubes hanging loose now, contents leaking upon the floor. The needle-bug pulled itself over the lip of the table with a quickness that made my skin crawl. It turned its head toward my bound calf, needle pointing, a bead of clear liquid glistening at its tip … And with a roar I hauled the stand overhead, lifting it as far as the bands allowed, and crashed the haft of it into the needle-bug’s glassy body. Fragments flew everywhere and the twitching carcass slithered over the edge, landing with a brittle crunch.
With feverish concentration I unbuckled the remaining straps, scanning the walls as I did so for the arrival of more needle-bugs.
A minute later I set two bare feet to the cold floor and found my legs reluctant to take the weight of me, skinny as I was. Blood still dribbled from my wrist where the tubes had fed their filth into me. Skin flapped, raw flesh glistened.
The table lay bare save for some clear and squidgy pads that must have kept it from wearing sores into my back. A vent ran the length of it and a drain below. They must have sluiced away my filth as I lay unconscious. A pure hatred ran through me. I would hurt whoever did this to me, and then I would end them.
A door stood behind me, silvery-steel like the table. I looked about for weapons but the room was bare save for the corroded carcasses of ancient machinery. Gripping the drug stand like a spear, I advanced on the door. There would be larger foes outside. The bugs hadn’t lifted me onto the table or buckled me down.
I stood with a hand to the door for a moment, trying to clear my head. Had Katherine truly been here? Had she wakened me? A kiss seemed unlikely – the princess hated me, and with good reason. A knife to the heart seemed a more realistic greeting. Even so, something had woken me from what must be months of slumber, years even. And Katherine had once kept the company of a dream-witch, so why not her? Perhaps she thought letting me sleep my days away here, safe from nightmares, was too kind an end for me.
Remembering that I was watched, I left the door and stood before the eye peeping at me from the high corner with its little red light flashing.
‘I’m coming for you and death will not hide you.’ I swung the stand at arms’ length, smashing the box from its stand. It hit the wall, then the floor, and when the lens rolled free I crushed it beneath the stand’s metal foot. A grand speech perhaps for a man with no clothes, no weapon, and no plan, but it lit my fire and it never hurts to sow the seeds of unease in your foe’s mind.
The destruction of Builder machines is of course a terrible waste of knowledge and wonder beyond our imagination. There is, however, an undeniable thrill in doing it.
The door opened for me, the locking mechanism corroded, the metal degenerating into curious white powder – a good thing as I would not have been able to force it. The most surprising thing about the works of the Builders is always not how broken they are but just how many of them still function. After the slow passage of the eleven centuries since the Day of a Thousand Suns I would have expected them all to be dust. Certainly nothing built in the first three hundred years to follow that conflagration now survives.
The corridor beyond lay thick with dust, the corpse of a needle-bug disarticulated and strewn along the margins. Stairways led left and right, both blocked with rubble, the ceiling collapsed. I advanced further, to a point where a door opened to either side. To the left a domed steel machine glowing gently through small portals. Dozens of needle-bugs and others of similar design – but with cutting wheels or opposing thread-laced jaws in place of the needle – scattered the floor, most in pieces. The least damaged of them huddled close to the dome as if seeking sustenance from it. Several twitched towards me as I looked in, but none made it more than half way before the light died from their eyes and they ceased to move.
To the right, a room that radiated cold and contained several large chests, white, rectangular and without ornament or lock. Goosebumps rose across me as I entered the room. Perhaps just from the cold. It’s hard to be naked in a place that wants to hurt you. A layer of cloth would offer me little protection but I would have felt far more brave. I read in Tacitus that the Romans when they came to the Drowned Isles faced Brettan men who charged them wearing nothing but blue dye. The Brettans died in droves and surrendered their lands, but I can respect their courage, if not their methods.
A steel cylinder, thicker than my arm and half as long, stood between the chests. A long strap of dark and woven plasteek ran from top to bottom. I picked it up: heavier than I imagined. The legend stamped upon it was in no alphabet I recognized. I slung it over my shoulder. A looter decides on worth once he’s out.
I raised the lid of one of the chests using the metal stand. Freezing mist escaped with a soft sigh. The space within lay filled with frost, and with organs wrapped in clear plasteek: hearts, livers, eyeballs in jelly, and other pieces of man-tripe beyond my vocabulary. A second chest held glass vials bound top and bottom with metal rings and stamped with the plague symbol – triple intersecting crescent moons. This I knew from a weapons vault I once set on fire beneath Mount Honas.
I reached in and took three vials at random, so cold they stuck to my flesh. I put them on the ground, tearing skin to be free of them, then bound each with the plasteek tubes to the foot of the stand. I didn’t know what plague they might contain nor whether it was still virulent but when the only weapon you have is an awkward metal stick sporting blunt hooks you take whatever you find.
Turning to leave, I found the spirit in the doorway: Miss Kind-Eyes-and-Compassion, flickering now like the Builder-ghost I’d seen nearly a year earlier, and wearing a long white coat, almost a robe but without fold or style.
‘You should put those back, Jorg.’ She pointed to the vials at the end of my stand.
‘How do you know my name?’ I walked toward her.
‘I know a lot of things about you, J—’
I walked through her into the corridor. Often as not conversation is a delaying tactic and I’d waited long enough on that table.
‘—org. I know what is written in your blood. I could remake you whole from the smallest flake of your skin.’
‘Interesting,’ I said. ‘Where’s Hakon?’
I came to a large door at the end of the corridor. Locked.
‘You should listen carefully, Jorg. It’s difficult to maintain this projection so far from—’
‘Your name, ghost.’
‘Kalla Lefarge. I—’
‘Open this door, Kalla.’
‘You must understand, Jorg, mechanisms have finite duration. I need biological units to carry out my work. To carry me even. Projection has its lim—’
‘Now,’ I said, and banged the vials against the metal.
‘Don’t!’ She held out a hand as if that might stop me. The very first thing she said to me was to put them down. It pays to notice priorities. She’d said it as if they were of no great importance … but she said it first.
‘Or what?’ I clonked the end of the stand against the door again and the vials clinked together.
‘If a class alpha viral strain contaminates this facility it will be purged. I can neither override that protocol nor allow it to happen.’
A flicker of concern over those perfect features. Builder-ghosts were woven from the story of a person’s life – every detail – extrapolated from a billion seconds of scrutiny. This one I felt had drifted far from its template, but not so far it couldn’t still know fear.
‘With fire.’ Kalla’s face flickered briefly to a look of horror, returning to its customary serenity a moment later. I wondered from what instant that look had been stolen and what had set it on the face of the real Kalla – flesh and blood and bone like me, dust these many centuries. Had the creature before me grown far from its roots or had Kalla shared this madness? ‘Enough fire to leave these halls hollow and smoking.’
‘Better open the fucking door then.’ And I banged the stand in earnest.
‘Careful!’ A hand flew to her mouth. ‘There! It’s open!’
The hall beyond lay crossed with shadow and lit by irregular patches of light bright enough to make me squint. Steel tables lined each wall. A stench of rot filled my nose, along with something sharp, astringent, chemical. Corpses lay on every table. Some in pieces. Some fresh. Some corrupt. Organs floated in glass tubes running from ceiling to floor, threaded with bubbles – hearts, livers, lengths of gut. Behind the table closest to me a metal skeleton, or some close approximation, leaned across yet another corpse. Despite lacking muscle or flesh the thing moved, the cleverly articulated fingers of one hand swiftly driving the needle of a drug-vial into vital spots all across the cadaver before it. The other hand moved from unstrapping the remains to depressing raised bumps on certain mechanisms that replaced sections of the body such as the elbow joints. It finished by turning a dial on some engine sunk deep into the chest cavity.
I held the stand out between us, vials clinking, ready to fend the thing off if it jumped me.
‘This is the last of my medical units,’ the ghost said, voice wavering between two pitches as if unable to settle. ‘I’d ask you not to damage it further.’
As the skeleton straightened to regard me with black eyes bedded in silver-steel sockets, I noted across its bones the white powdery corrosion that I’d seen back on the lock to my sleeping chamber. The thing stepped away from the table, favouring one leg, a gritty sound accompanying each movement of its limbs. Only the nimble fingers seemed unaffected by the passage of a millennium.
The corpse, on the other hand, moved with far more surety and only the slightest whine of mechanics as it sat up between us.
They’d done something to his eyes, rods of glass and metal jutting from red sockets; his hair and beard had been shaved away, but his smile was the same.
In my moment of hesitation Hakon, or his remains, took hold of the stand. I tugged at it but his grip had no give.
‘This one nearly succeeded,’ he said. Or rather it was the ghost’s voice, but firmer, and sounding from the box in his chest. ‘He can support me, but his brain degenerates under fine control and the degree of putrefaction about the implants is too great to be sustained in the longer term.’
‘And I was to be your next … steed?’ I tugged at the stand again.
‘You still will be,’ Kalla said, her voice coming distractingly from both the ghost and the box in Hakon’s chest. ‘The last faults have been analysed. This time it will succeed. Nor will your life be forfeit. Even this one isn’t dead – not truly.’ Hakon slipped from the table and stood before me, both hands tight about the stand. ‘Carry me for long enough to complete three alternate hosts and I’ll send you on your way with nothing but a few stitches.’
‘Why me?’ I glanced around, looking for the way out. ‘Get some new bodies to play with.’
‘You’ve broken my last sedation units.’
‘Mend them—’ I lunged forward and tore one of the vials free.
Releasing the stand, I stepped away, holding the vial overhead, ready to smash it.
‘Who was the other one? The ghost who put on the skull-and-bones show for us, tried to scare us off?’
‘A colleague at this facility, also copied and stored as a data echo. She … disapproves of my work here. We’re isolated in this network. Security they called it.’ She made a bitter noise. ‘Our research too classified to risk a leak. And so until I find a way to have our data physically carried to another portal we’re cut off from the deep-nets. Just us two … arguing … for a thousand years. I have the upper hand now though, especially in here. The outer part of the station collapsed long ago and our projection units are outside. She lacks the power to interfere for long.’
I spotted a door and backed rapidly toward it. The ghost winked out but Hakon followed me, carrying the stand like a quarterstaff, a touch awkward in his gait. I wondered if he was still in there, fighting her, or were the important parts of his brain floating in some jar on a high shelf?
‘Where’s Katherine?’ I asked it to keep Kalla occupied, though perhaps when a machine does your thinking for you distraction is impossible. Maybe all my parameters were already calculated within the Builders’ engines, wheels turning through each possibility like the mathmagicians of Afrique, the odds sewn tight against me.
‘So you did have help?’ A flicker of annoyance in the voice, though Hakon’s face revealed no emotion. ‘It was a subtle thing, detected only after analysis. A manipulation at sub-instrumental levels. Sleep psionics of advanced degree …’
I found the door and tugged at it. Hakon took three quick steps and I set both hands to the vial, making to twist the top. ‘Do it and I’ll open Pandora’s Box here and we’ll see what ills emerge.’
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