05. They emerge

“What’s wrong?” Sal sees my expression as I frantically look out through one window, and then the next, then the next, in turn.

“Turn off the lights,” I whisper.

“Why?”

“Keep your voice down. Turn them off.”

Sal flicks the lights off through their lens and walks over to stand by me in the dark. “Tell me what’s going on.”

“There’s something out there,” I whisper. “I thought it was the noise of the water in the storm. But I think something’s followed me here. I’m sorry, Sal.”

Sal fixes me to the spot with both hands. “Breathe,” they whisper, and waits until I’ve got my breathing under control. “You weren’t to know. It’s okay. Did you see who they were?”

I shake my head.

“Okay. This house is shielded, so they’re not going to get a heat pattern from us. It’s not necessarily someone who followed you; it could be a KS patrol or just someone passing overhead. We shouldn’t leave the house; we just need to stay put.”

“What if they land here?”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, we stay.”

The roar is closer now, and easier to identify as a quadcopter. Or rather, several quadcopters, probably flying in formation. When there are more than two vehicles in the air, each quadcopter’s onboard software connects over a mesh network with the others, forming a multi-core computer that constantly determines the most aerodynamic configuration for them to fly in. Based on the wind and their direction of travel, they configure and reconfigure multiple times a minute.

But they’re impossible to see at night. Copters are painted in black and don’t reflect or emit any light. It’s easier in the day, but then they fly higher.

I’m so stupid. Let told me. He told me.

Who the hell are they?

The waves outside seem to part, and I finally see a group of copters - five, maybe? Six? - hover low to the waterline. There’s a single red marking on their nose, but it’s impossible to see what, exactly, it is. There are no windows; just a deep, unreflective darkness.

Sal sees them too. I think I see a glimmer of recognition in their eyes, but then it passes. I might have imagined it.

What’s unmistakeable, though, is that the copters are opening.

In the aft side of each one, a door slides open, silent against the noise of the copter blades. After a few seconds, people begin to emerge. They’re dressed in some kind of battle armor from head to toe: the same deepest, unreflective black as the copters themselves. Some kind of textured padding covers their limbs and torsos; bulletproof cladding, perhaps, or temperature control. Their heads are entirely encased in narrow helmets; where their faces should be, I just see a honeycomb of lenses of different sizes.

Soldiers, of some kind.

They stand in the copter doorways as if waiting for some kind of signal. Conferring with each other, maybe, or waiting for new data.

And then it happens.

Each of them, instantly, turns to look directly at us. And then, over the water, as if it’s as solid as a roadway, they start walking.

They’re coming fast.

“Change of plan,” Sal says, hurriedly. “Follow me.”

They take me through into what passes for their kitchen area, and hold me close. I’m not sure what they’re doing, until they perform some action on their lens, and the floor of the kitchen smoothly falls away into a set of steps leading downwards. They dash down them and I follow quickly, confused about what we’re doing but unwilling to lose time to questions.

The stairs lead to a metal doorway. Sal takes my hand and pulls me through, and I see the stairs slide back up behind us, locking us in to wherever we are now.

As Sal walks further into the room, a set of LED strips begins to glow across the walls in an electric blue. Equipment from different ages - laptops, word processing machines, something called an Atari ST - sit neatly on low shelves. A thin mattress lies in one corner, and there are a few bottles of different kinds of synthetic alcohol.

“You’re lucky you’ve never had to hide yourself before,” Sal explains, their voice quiet. “When the rise was young, it was rough for people who didn’t fit into the KS worldview. A few of us got rooms like this to wait it out if we needed to.”

“I’m sorry,” I whisper.

Sal shrugs. “Feeling safe has always been a luxury. All throughout history. The rise isn’t special in that regard.”

Above us, I hear a smash, and I suddenly wish I’d had the presence of mind to scoop up Vince. Hopefully they leave him alone.

They step into the house: each heavy footstep echoes through to the bunker below. They’re going through Sal’s stuff; objects fall and smash to the floor.

One of them makes a weird sound, like static.

Then the next makes a sound like static too, almost as if it’s in response.

Then another joins in. It’s unintelligible and painful to listen to.

“Encrypted speech,” Sal says, their eyes wide.

I’m none the wiser.

“They’ve modified themselves to speak out loud in encrypted data. If someone has been modified to be able to hear it, it’ll sound like real speech to them. To everyone else, it’s garbage. There’s no network required. No software. They just speak out loud like that. Some militia groups do it.”

“Do you know who they are?”

“Not yet,” Sal says, “but we might be able to figure it out.”

“If they don’t get us first.”

“Right.”

I look around. There don’t seem to be any exits beyond the doorway we came through, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any - after all, we arrived here through a secret passage. But I don’t see any immediate way to escape if they find their way down here. In many ways, we’re trapped.

The noises upstairs continue. What are they looking for?

There’s an almighty wail and I realize they’ve picked up Vince, who hates to be touched in any way, let alone carried. Then there’s a shout, another wail, a blaster shot, and the sound of tiny paws running around the floor. Point to Vince.

Unless.

I hear frantic padding at the top of the stairs, and I wonder if my cat is trying to make it down to join us, revealing our position in the process.

Sal and I look at each other. They look pale. I must too.

There are a few more encrypted exchanges between the soldiers upstairs - right upstairs, as if they’ve found the stairs and are trying to figure out how to make them lower. I look at the wall on the other side of the doorway - the edge of the raised stairs - and will them to stay put.

But they don’t. Slowly, smoothly, the stairs lower. And five soldiers, entirely dressed in an unreflective black with an array of lenses where their faces should be, walk silently down the stairs.

I wish I was armed. They certainly are: blasters attached to each arm, and heavier weapons holstered across their belts.

“Who are you?” I say.

They’re silent.

“We need to get out of here,” I whisper to Sal. “Is there another exit?”

Sal is silent. They stand motionless.

The person at the front - is it a person? - raises their right arm and shrieks something in their encrypted language. We both flinch.

They stop, lower their arm, and modulate the pitch volume of their voice. It almost sounds like they’re trying to form intelligible words out of the static.

Shhhwhhshshshwhshshhshsfhshh … shdhshhh … yooushhhshsh …

They don’t seem to be able to form unencrypted words. They give up and point their arm-blasters at us.

Sal and I both put up our hands. For seconds, we all stand still there: us with our hands up, the lead soldier with its blasters pointed at us, its colleagues behind it.

“Hello,” Sal says, suddenly.

No response.

“Hello,” Sal says again; louder, this time.

It almost looks like they’re cocking their heads to one side.

“I don’t think they can understand us,” Sal whispers to me. “This is so strange. Where are they from?”

The front soldier says something else in encrypted static and the other soldiers raise their blasters, too. Whether they understood Sal or not, they’re pissed off.

“We don’t mean to cause any trouble,” Sal says, walking forward half a step. “How can we help you?”

I hear the electric hum of them charging their blasters, ready to fire.

What do we do now, I’m about to say, but then they do fire, lighting the room in a blaze of fire and electricity. The pulses crackle through Sal’s body and they shake violently in the current. Finally, the pulses fade away, and Sal falls to the floor, charred and broken.

My pulse is racing. I can’t get my breath. Sal’s gone, burned and punished because they helped me, and I’m next, I’m sure of it.

But that’s not what happens.

Instead, Sal immediately gathers themselves off the ground, and, slowly and deliberately, gets up.

Then I see it.

There’s something different about Sal’s eyes.

Where there was fire and life a moment ago, Sal looks vacant. Their face twitches slightly, as if a muscle just behind their skin has gone into spasm. Other than that, there’s no movement at all.

Sal looks at the soldiers and speaks: a static encryption hiss. They hiss back in acknowledgement. Somehow they’ve taken Sal and turned them into another soldier. How? Nanobots? Something else? I’m suddenly less afraid that they’re going to kill me, and more afraid that they’ll convert me.

Sal’s body is starting to look different. Armor rises from their skin; blasters are starting to form on Sal’s arms. Their eyes are starting to get wider, their mouth beginning to transform.

Sal turns to look at me and what remains of their mouth forms into a smile that isn’t their smile at all. It’s cruel and robotic; it chills me to my bone. They raise their arms in my direction.

Whatever the soldiers are, whatever Sal is becoming, this is it. I failed Let; I’m done.

I close my eyes and wait for what’s next.