They’d arrived at what had once been some kind of air-traffic hub: a low-slung control shack whose walls and roof came together in a wraparound band of soot-stained windows angled at the sky. Two dead helicopters and a one-winged jump jet littered a scorched expanse of tarmac and landing bullseyes, barely visible beneath the scoring. The nozzles of retracted fuel lines poked through the deck here and there; one burned fitfully, a monstrous candle or a fuse set to detonate whatever reservoir fed the flame. In the middle of it all, bodies moved.
The bodies were human. Their movements were anything but.
Moore waved the others back against the shack, spared a backward glance and a raised hand: Stay here. Brüks nodded. Moore slipped around the corner and disappeared.
A swirling gust blew sparks and acrid smoke into Brüks’s face. He suppressed a cough, eyes stinging, and squinted through the haze. Human, yes. Two, maybe three, near the edge of one of the bullseyes. Gray coveralls, blue uniform, insignia impossible to make out from this distance.
They were dancing.
At least, that was the closest word Brüks could summon to describe the tableaux: movements both inhumanly precise and inhumanly fast, humanoid simulacra engaged in some somatic call-and-response unlike anything he’d ever seen. There was a lead, but it kept changing; there were steps, but they never seemed to repeat. It was ballet, it was semaphore, it was some kind of conversation that engaged every part of the body except the tongue. It was utterly silent but for the machine-gun staccato of boots on the deck, faint and intermittent through the soft roar of the wind and the crackling of the flames.
And faintly familiar, somehow.
Moore ended it all with a blow to the back of the head. One moment the dancing marionettes were alone on the stage; the next the Colonel had materialized from the smoke, his hand already blurring toward the target. The gray-clad dancer jerked and thrashed and collapsed twitching onto the deck, a disconnected puppet gone suddenly grand mal; the other threw himself down at the same instant, although Moore hadn’t touched him. He lay twisting beside his fallen partner, still in frantic clockwork motion but only twitching now, amplitude reined in to complement these new and unexpected steps brought so suddenly into the routine.
“Echopraxia echofuckingpraxia,” Sengupta hissed at his shoulder.
Moore was back. “This way.”
A broken door gaped around the corner. Inside, brain-dead smart paint sparked and sizzled along those few control surfaces that hadn’t already been put to the flame.
Brüks glanced over his shoulder. “What about—”
“They’re in a feedback loop. We don’t have to worry until the mechanic comes back.” A companionway gaped from the far bulkhead. A fallen cabinet blocked the way. Moore pushed it aside.
“Isn’t that bad for them?” Brüks wondered, and immediately felt like an idiot. “I mean, wouldn’t it be better if we broke the loop? Split them up?”
Moore paused at the top of the stairs. “Best-case scenario, they’d do as well as you would if someone split you down the middle.”
“Oh.” After a moment: “Worst-case?”
“They wake up,” Moore said, “And come after us.”