• Thomas O'Beirne

The Bankers Guild

Elzear hates to admit it, but he’s feeling a tad nervous. Wandering through an abandoned labyrinth is not his usual modus operandi. Most of Elzear’s twenty-two years have been spent in cushioned armchairs and marbled offices. As a Banker, he’s more accustomed to negotiating the shady twists of a slightly-illegitimate loan than the dark passages of the abandoned Ark. But all young Bankers—or, at least, the ones that don’t have prominent relatives to pave their way up the ranks with well-placed bribes—must serve as Bondsmen on UP-financed expeditions. Positive returns on an investment venture grants increased status. Increased status, in turns, grants more access to the Nasquim Node. And for a Banker, access to the Node is everything. Right now, however, returning to Masse at the helm of a successful expedition seems a distant daydream. The more pressing issues are the blisters on his heels. And the deathly cold. And the fact that he hasn’t slept in a bed—a real bed, not the narrow bunk on the interstellar transport beneath Warren’s snoring bulk—for weeks, which a twinge in his back reminds him about with every step. Elzear turns up the temperature on his thermal-suit. After a few minutes, he can feel his fingers again. Behind him, the two Junkers, Brisis and Ulthis, snigger. At the start of the expedition, they’d seemed interested in him. He knew he was easy on the eye, and it wasn’t hard to charm anyone, once you figured out their weaknesses. But as soon as he’d made his distaste for Junkers known, they’d turned to mocking his shiny thermal-suit and trendy haircut. Elzear couldn’t care less. Junkers were tasteless. Uneducated. In his city, they sullied the streets with their alleyway shanties and grasping, uncouth manner. In front of Elzear walks Warren, the Engineer, a monstrosity of a man. His legs are swollen with hypertrophied muscle, and he has replaced his right arm with a mechanical limb. “He can identify any creature by its smell,” Yunara of the Switches Guild told Elzear quietly, a few nights ago. “He went a bit too far, though. The last enhancement fried his frontal lobes.” Like a loyal dog, he stays at Yunara’s elbow. Elzear suspects that Warren will rip his head off if he becomes too friendly towards the Switches hacker. Delmar is at the head of the group. Elzear has never met a Hunter before this expedition. A thin man with a frightful face: almost entirely scarred, but for his right eye. On meeting Elzear, Delmar had murmured, “I can always pick the ones who’ll die.” Since then, the Hunter has hardly spoken. Delmar doesn’t look back to check that the others are keeping up. He walks on, turning this way and that, leading them through the tunnels of the dormant Ark. “How does he know which way to go?” Elzear hisses. Yunara glances at him sidelong, through her visor. “A Hunter once told me that they sense the specialness of objects the way we feel heat and cold.” At the end of a debris-strewn corridor, they reach a sealed portal. Yunara examines the control panel, which looks like it has been out of operation for a thousand years. Warren and the Junkers take to the walls, kicking and probing for weaknesses. Elzear uses his rapid-sonar to scan the debris for discarded currency or valuable artefacts. Nothing. He sits on a box to catch his breath. Yunara wires a palm-sized gadget to the control panel. Then she scowls. “It’s not even in ternary. I’ll need to run a code converter. I need more power.” Brisis produces an ion battery from her rucksack. Yunara connects the battery to her gadget. Her eyes flick back and forth behind her visor, coding remotely. A few minutes later, the door releases with a hiss of compressed air. Ulthis pushes a steel bar into the gap and wedges it ajar. A rank odour seeps out. “Demon-spawn,” gasps Elzear. “What is that smell?” “Smells like a flock of Bankers,” says Ulthis, and steps through. To Elzear’s horror, the next room is scattered with decaying corpses. The stench is unbearable. Gagging, he seals the helmet of his thermal-suit. Delmar bends to examine the nearest corpse, which is stiff and bloated and purple. With a loud crunch, the door seals shut behind them. Yunara swears. Elzear makes a noise not unlike a squeal. With gloved fingers, he fumbles at the buttons on his left wrist. The one for his rapid-sonar was furthest to the right…or was it the left? He flicks something. His suit releases a blaring alarm. “Shut that cursed thing off, you idiot!” Brisis screeches, but by the time Elzear finds the button again, it’s too late. An inhuman groan shudders through the walls of the Ark. The sound makes Elzear’s bladder contract involuntarily. Ulthis switches on a light, casting their faces in a pallid blue glow. Yunara searches frantically for a latch or control panel. Another groan shakes the floor. Elzear plasters himself against a bloodstained wall. Brisis draws her hand-axe from its cradle. Warren sniffs the air furiously. “Well?” mutters Delmar. Warren turns his black eyes upon the others. “I don’t know.” A second later, the beasts swarm the room. They move too fast for Elzear to see them clearly. Amorphous shapes, like clouds of wasps, moving with that weird groaning noise. They go for Ulthis first, because she has the light. She collapses, the skin ripped from her face. The lamp clatters to the ground beside her limp body. “Yunara!” screams Brisis, lunging with her axe. “Get us out of here!” Warren leaps into the fray, brandishing a sword in his mechanical arm. He moves fast, but the beasts are faster. “Merciful Lapitus,” Elzear gasps, fumbling for his plasma gun. “I don’t want to die!” He’s backed into a corner. His limbs have turned to jelly. The two Junkers are down. The Engineer is on his knees, howling. Delmar is nowhere in sight. Yunara, her back turned, intent on hacking the door, will be the next to go. And then— The beasts notice him. His gun clatters to the ground. Hundreds of rows of little teeth swarm into his vision. He squeezes his eyes shut. Delmar was right. Why, in the name of the Emperor, had he decided to invest a ragtag scouting party to the Ark? “D-Shield Activated,” announces his thermal-suit. A current of energy jolts his body. Then, all is still. Elzear peels his eyes open. Dozens of dead creatures litter the floor. They have the black, leathery wings of bats, but their bodies are pink and fleshy. Brisis, Ulthis, Warren and Yunara lie amongst the heap of unmoving corpses. He’s alive. Shaken, gasping, and noticing an embarrassing warmth spreading from his groin—but alive. He’s overcome by an urge to kiss his thermal-suit. “Well. Right. What now?”

Author: Grace Chan

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