Chapters Eight & Nine
It was the vibration that woke her; the sound came only later. She slept restlessly for a while before she rose, the vibration invading her dreams, until the alien and insistent pulse causing the entire building to hum. It would not be correct to say the house shook, as the effect was so uniform, so perfectly timed and inhumanly precise, that it felt natural and gentle. For someone who had grown up with only the perpetual imperfections of sputtering generators and failing engines, such regularity was frightening.
She heard dim sounds of crying from inside the house as she bolted for the door. She flung it open and emerged outside. The air was unusually chill, but she could barely feel it. The vibration now seemed to overwhelm her senses. The vibration was in her temples and in her toes and in her teeth and in her spine. She felt a brief rush of nausea. As she stumbled forward she saw Mac, his back towards her, standing transfixed. She came up behind him and touched his shoulder. He wheeled around and saw her, wild-eyed. Then he pointed towards a stand of buildings in the distance. She peered for a while before it came back – a pulse of brilliant, unnatural white light from among the structures. It flashed again a few seconds later, a bit farther along.
“Come on,” she said, and ran towards the light.
They ran from one building to the next, hugging the sides as they traced the path of the light. Mac breathed heavily as he struggled to move his big frame alongside hers, but did not speak. It seemed to take forever to close the distance. Finally they came up behind a crumbling brick building. Haojing pressed herself against the cold brick for a moment, then leaned around the corner.
Its metal was perfectly smooth, unmarked by dents or corrosion. The seams between the plates that made up its hull were thin and tight. The scavenger in her could not help but admire the aesthetics of the drone, floating a couple meters above the ground, advancing on the computing shed. It had no wings, just a set of four propellers mounted under the unmarked fuselage and an array of sensors and cameras attached to its face. From front to back its tapering cylindrical body was probably three meters long. The vibration was now so present and so powerful that it seemed oddly to fade away – her body vibrated in time with its environment. For a moment the world seemed still.
The moment passed quickly. The drone advanced on the computing shed. In a quick and efficient maneuver, one of the seams along its abdomen open wide, and with insect mobility four thin metal legs deployed. They found purchase on the shed, boring into its hull with robotic ease. The front of the drone also opened, a frightening and gaping mouth of instruments. Two claws snaked out and effortlessly tore a hole in the shed. A lighted probe snaked out from the drone’s mouth and into the hole. From her vantage, she could not see what was happening inside, but the probe seemed to be moving about the interior of the shed. Finally it retracted and the drone sat, perched on the structure, unmoving. After a few seconds, a claw emerged from inside the drone and extended from a telescoping arm into the shed. Haojing could barely make out the sound of twisting metal, and then the claw emerged, delicately clutching some computer components. The claw’s arm withdrew inside the fuselage, its cargo in tow.
“Fuck me,” said Mac. She started, having forgotten that he was alongside her. She shushed him, but realized it was unnecessary. More and more villagers had crept out to watch, hiding behind trees and rubble. The drone was supremely indifferent to their presence. As quickly as they had deployed, its probes and legs withdrew, and it arose, its temporarily arachnid form giving way once again to its polished and vibrating perfection.
It proceeded to pick its way to various buildings, landing on them, probing them, and extracting usable technology in stages, though there was little to find. Most of the occupants of these structures ran and hid, though a few tried vainly to save their stuff. One old lady beat at the drone’s hull limply with her broom; it proceeded without any indication that it was aware she was there. It simply went about probing her things, extracting only an old cell phone she had hidden among her baubles, then moved on to the next building.
One villager, a skilled mechanic, was finally successful in getting the drone’s attention. As it pilfered through the inoperable van he used as his home, he sized up a blow from his wrench, aiming not for the impenetrable hull but for the thin machinery of the claws themselves. He struck, bending one of the claw arms slightly. She was amazed at his bravery, though such fanatical devotion to stuff was common in a world where all things were irreplaceable. After his swing connected, he took a step backwards, seemingly stunned by his own action. The drone paused. One of its cameras snaked around and considered him for an instant. Haojing cringed, expecting the worst. A thick tube emerged from inside the bowels of the drone. It pointed at him, targeting, as he turned in terror. In the next instant, she heard a muted, pneumatic sound, as the drone fired a single puff of air at him. The force flung him off of his feet, slamming him against a nearby wall. The drone returned to its work. Some villagers ran up and dragged the mechanic away; he was stunned but otherwise unharmed.
For minutes Haojing and Mac followed it. She was dazed, at once fascinated and frightened. It moved with such inhuman efficiency, and there was something so beautiful in its intricate machinery. And the vibration, now, so smooth and ceaseless, had come to feel like the natural white noise of the universe. She was transfixed, though somewhere deep in her mind she knew this was a crisis.
Then it happened.
The crowd had grown, with much of the village now openly gawking at the drone as it went about robbing them. It had reacted, up until then, with utter indifference. But as it approached another building, suddenly, the drone broke from its path and sized up one poor villager.
It hovered above him, menacing and alien. Probes deployed from its mouth, bathing him in white light. He cowered against a tree, terrified. Finally the claw deployed, grasping him on his arm as he screamed, and Haojing saw. His arm was cybernetic. Another appendage emerged from the drone and threw him to the ground, pinning him there. With one terrible, casual movement, the claw wrenched his arm from his body. Blood spurted out as he and those around him screamed. The claw again withdrew into the drone, securing its cargo. Another probe emerged, bathing his torso in blue light. A claw shot forward, piercing him through his chest, pulling an implant from inside his body with unhurried and indifferent force. He spasmed for a moment and then lay still. The drone again retracted its various limbs and floated slowly on.
Haojing stood immobile for a moment while Mac panted in fear besides her. She stared at the drone, making out its path, extrapolating its movements, though she knew immediately where it would soon be headed.
“Long Fei,” she said, then adrenaline overtook her, and she ran.
The house was dark as she approached, breathless and panicked. She slumped against a nearby tree, gasping for air. From a hundred meters behind her she could hear Mac wheezing and stumbling to catch up. As she sagged in place, she felt unnerved by the silence: for the first time she could remember, none of the generators were running. She realized that Chien-yi must have shut down the whole house, everything, to hide out, to avoid attention.
She rushed up to the house, but was stymied by a bolted door. On the edge of hysteria she pounded, then felt it give way. Her mother stood in the doorway. Chien-yi had been her comfort throughout everything, her implacable toughness perhaps the only constant in a ceaselessly chaotic world. Seeing her face in the doorway, drained of all its color, her eyes wild and afraid, was the most unsettling feeling Haojing could remember. Her panic deepening, she grabbed Chien-yi’s arm.
“Mother… mother, I’m here, it’s me, it’s Haojing.”
Mac wheezed his way to the front door, collapsing against the wall of the house, sucking in air.
“It’s – it’s right behind us, it’s –” he said.
Chien-yi walked forward out of the house, indifferent to Haojing, who clung to her arm like a toddler. She stared off towards the village. Emerging from behind some vegetation came the awful white light, the drone approaching them with that awful unhurried pace.
“It’s the Sanhedrin,” said Chien-yi, her tone flat and emotionless. “The Sanhedrin is here.”
Haojing clutched her arm, feeling confused and alone. The drone’s light was drifting closer and closer.
“Mother,” she said. “Mother.”
“I never thought – I never thought they’d come this far east.”
“Mother. Mother, please.”
For one more agonizing moment, Chien-yi merely stared. Then her eyes opened wide, and she turned to look at Haojing, then back to the drone. She pulled her arm from Haojing’s and ran back inside the house. Haojing watched her go, unsure whether to follow. Mac stumbled over and grasped her lightly on the wrist.
“Hey,” he stammered. “It’s coming. It’s coming this way.”
“Right,” she said, gathering herself. In a moment her panic disappeared, and she set about to the task at hand. Casting her eyes around for any kind of a weapon, she spotted a set of rusting garden tools. She tossed him a shovel and picked up a rake. Mac looked down at the shovel in his hands, grimacing. She shrugged.
“Well, here goes,” he said.
They closed the distance with the advancing drone quickly. It glided only a few feet above the ground, the same insistent vibration the only indication that it was expending any energy at all. She was again put out by its slow pace, and again she caught herself admiring the machined perfection of its hull. She had to remind herself of its bloody cargo. As she strode up to it, she clutched her improvised weapon. As they neared, the drone subtly altered its path away from them, the only indication that it had detected their presence at all.
Mac sidestepped in front of the drone. He drew himself to his full, considerable height, raising the shovel high above his head, ready to bring it down on his target. In one smooth motion, the drone simply rose to a higher altitude, passing just above the apex of Mac’s swing. The shovel flew forward awkwardly, sending him stumbling.
Haojing grabbed Mac, steadying him. “Come on.”
It was not hard to keep pace with the drone, but its elevation left her at a loss. She ran forward and flung the rake like a javelin at the fuselage of the drone; predictably, it glanced off with barely a sound. Before she knew it, the drone was attaching itself to her house.
In a blink, the mechanical appendages had deployed, boring into the concrete walls. The clawed arms again looked to rip into the building, but found far more resistance than before, given the sturdy structure the drone had attached itself to. So it explored other options. It moved across the face of the building like a spider, with each step crunching the concrete, until it was perched against the door. A claw began to wrench the door open.
With the drone again at a lower elevation, Mac struck. He brought the shovel down in a diagonal arc, swinging to hit as many of the drone’s instruments as possible. He bent the arm of one of the many tendrils and cracked the casing of a sensor. Again, the drone seemed entirely unimpressed. As it had before, the pneumatic hose deployed, pointing at Mac.
“Fuck,” he said briefly, stumbling back to avoid it. But the hose moved quickly, and he was struck with a blast of air. The force hit him square in his torso, knocking the wind out of him, and he fell to his feet. Haojing took her chance, bringing the rake down repeatedly into the drone’s mouth. The blow finally did some damage; sparks shot out, and one of the arms cracked and buckled. Finally, she had succeeded in getting its attention. The drone disconnected itself from the door frame, swinging around to face Haojing, its mouth opened, appendages pointing towards her in a stance of unmistakable menace. A clawed arm swung from its place on the wall, striking her across the chest and sending her flying to the ground. She wheezed in pain, struggling to rise to a crouch. The vibration seemed heavier than ever; her head throbbed. The pneumatic tube retracted. Out snaked a long thin cylinder, its center glowing red with heat. She heard a thin, high pitched whine, building in volume as the cylinder took aim at her.
“Oh shit,” she said, closing her eyes, bracing herself.
She heard her mother’s voice, unmistakable. She had emerged from the house. Hanging heavy in her hand, she clutched a piece of technology Haojing had never seen before. It looked like a pipe bomb, or an electromagnet some kid had made for a science project. A heavy cylinder, it was coiled with copper wire. Transistors and capacitors stuck out at odd angles; a large battery was duct taped to one end. Everything about it looked homemade, jury-rigged. Haojing felt a spike of excitement, knowing that it was one of the forbidden objects, one of the many crazy toys she had always suspected lay hidden from her in her father’s old workshop.
Chien-yi raised the device aloft as she approached the drone, coming frighteningly close. She waved it under one of the drone’s sensors, which turned and regarded her even as the larger entity remained focused on Haojing. After a sickening second, the drone itself turned suddenly towards Chien-yi and her cargo. A flurry of probes and cameras emerged at once, like a thicket of snakes, eyeing the device hungrily. Chien-yi turned and ran, still waving it above her head. The drone accelerated to follow her. Haojing stumbled to her feet, grabbing Mac and pulling him along.
Chien-yi retreated, clutching the device above her head like a talisman, drawing the drone away. Haojing hustled behind her, terrified and exhausted.
“We have to… give her time,” she said to Mac, who wheezed alongside her, clearly struggling.
“Right,” he said, but fell further behind her.
Up ahead of her, the drone moved to a gear they hadn’t yet seen, closing the distance with Chien-yi. It rolled to one side, its pneumatic tube shooting out from its mouth and taking aim at her. A blast of air to her feet cut her legs out from under her, sending her stumbling to the ground. The drone slowed and hovered above her. Its mouth opened wide, all of its various tentacles emerging at once. A claw shot forward to grab at the device.
In desperation, Haojing jumped and grabbed at the drone’s body, trying to hold on, but could find no purchase on its polished metal hull. Her grasps succeeded only in jerking it to the side briefly, sending the claw slapping uselessly against the ground. Chien-yi crawled forward, staggering and flailing.
“A little farther,” she said, breathlessly. “Just a little farther.”
The drone reared up above her, eyeing the device she clutched with its dozens of cameras and sensors. Chien-yi rose to her feet and stumbled away, the drone trailing behind her. Mac, exhausted, made one last attempt, drawing himself to his full height and grabbing at the insides of the drone. He succeeded in finding purchase on one of its telescoping legs, and with no better ideas, simply held on, using his weight to drag the drone lower in the air. Chien-yi pressed on ahead of them. With a casual motion, the drone reached out one of its pincers, grasping Mac’s arm. As he screamed, it broke his bones, snap snap snap, and he let go, dropping to the ground in a heap. The drone floated off after its target. Haojing spared a moment to worry for Mac, then followed.
Up ahead, Chien-yi turned and cast a glance at the house, receding in the background. Glancing at the drone, she took two long steps backwards, seeming to measure herself against the horizon. Then she stopped and raised the cylinder above her head. The drone approached and hovered above her, and for Haojing the world stood still.
One last arm deployed from the drone, thicker and more alien than any that had emerged before. Thin wires coiled along its length. Its tip shuttered open, and out poured a blue light, sickening and bright, bathing Chien-yi. She stood for a moment, shuddering but otherwise unmoving, the cylinder still raised above her head. For a few awful seconds she was bathed in the light, which seemed to suck the strength right out of her. With a casual motion a clawed arm emerged from the drone’s mouth and moved to take the cylinder. Reaching up, Chien-yi grasped a thin metal hoop attached to a pin that stuck from inside of the cylinder, and pulled.
The cylinder emitted a flash of electricity, rippling out in every direction. It crackled through the air, filling the space around them. Haojing felt it move through her body, her hair filling with static, her fillings sparking in her mouth. Through dimming eyes she saw her mother, still standing at her full height, cylinder raised above her like a torch, her whole body bathed in electricity she did not seem to notice. The blue sparking field enveloped the drone, shooting out across its hull, seeping into the seams in its fuselage. Its probes and sensors sparked and popped, and gray smoke seeped from its insides. For a moment it spasmed in the air, then it maneuvered feebly away for a moment before falling to the ground, sparking and popping. It gave off one last mournful vibration, then something inside of it shattered and failed, and it lay still on the ground. The pulse of electricity subsided, and again they were enveloped in dark.
Against the moonlight, Chien-yi dropped the cylinder to her side, then collapsed to the ground, wheezing. Haojing propped herself up, staring at her mother, lying in the grass. For a moment she fought to stay awake, and then exhaustion and fear and shock overtook her, and the world was black.
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