Javier stared out of the grime-smeared fourth storey window of the Ness hotel. It had been a charming place, once. One of the best in New Orleans. He’d even stayed here once or twice before the aliens came. But now it was a No-Safe Zone and entering it was suicide. Unless you’d been trained to kill the K’haisan.
He pressed his back to the peeling wall, electrically-charged pistol in hand. Every draft of wind, every groan of the creaking building frayed his nerves. The tips of his fingers felt full of stone. In the distance lay the gigantic EMP dome, marking the Safe-Zone and shielding those inside. If you wanted to get in, you had to prove it was you and not one of them. Sweat dripped down his spine. Where the hell was backup? It was pointless calling them, no signals could move around under the dome.
The door creaked as Mikael, his partner, trooped in. “Not here yet?” he asked. Javier could feel the man’s trembling body heat as he edged next to him.
“We’ll have to wait it out. No chance of letting it leave the building.” As far as they knew the things couldn’t materialize through walls. Every window and door in the place was barred shut with the access card in Javier’s pocket.
“Look.” Javier strode over to the four poster bed. He threw off the satin silk sheets, revealing a gaping hole in the fabric. He pulled the tough stitching apart, widening the hole. He stepped back to reveal Roxanne’s dead body, concealed in the mattress. Red stuffing cupped her pale, pale face.
She’d been the first one to get the hotel. Javier had told her to wait for backup, wait for the others. That was the last time he’d spoken to her.
“God.” Mikael laid a hand on her forehead. “It’s warm.”
“I know.” Fear tugged at the pits of Javier’s stomach. “You know what this means, right?”
The answer came a moment later when Roxanne stomped inside. “When—” her eyes flickered. Darted to the bed stitching impossibly fast. The eyes met Javier’s, eyes that were suddenly far from human.
He fired, silencer muffling the sound as a heavy round punched into her. Or it should have. Her body seemed to disintegrate, split into a hundred million gleaming blue-black particles, swirling up in the air like smooth shards. Mikael fired his own gun, but the particles coiled out the door like a ghost, vanishing down the hall.
“It killed her,” Mikael whispered, hands shaking. “What did it want?”
“Us.” The K’haisan were known to impersonate humans to worm their way inside the SZs. There weren’t enough of them, nor were they durable enough to make a full frontal assault. They’d be cut down in seconds.
But killing a human? Rare.
Javier slipped into the hall. The corridor was clothed in shadow, black as pitch. Old crates and pieces of now-useless equipment sat in a tangle. The plaster was peeling, exposing the wood that made up the wall’s bones.
Somewhere above them furniture scraped against the wooden floor.
“It’s just trying to scare us,” Javier said, knuckle ridges sharp as razors. In a room to their left something toppled over, glass shattering. Javier charged in, just catching sight of the alien as it floated out of the room at lightning speed.
Mikael ushered in, closing the door with a clang. Upstairs, Javier mouthed, turning towards him. It just occurred to him that these aliens might have had acute hearing as well. It could have been listening to every word they said, soaking up their words and figuring out the best way to kill humans.
Javier moved down the hall and reached the next floor, eyes sweeping from side to side.
Something flickered on the edge of his vision. He edged into the bedroom on his right and pushed open the ajar door.
“Anything there?” Mikael asked.
Javier was about to turn back when he saw the body slumped against the red-spattered wall. A look of shock was frozen its face.
“What the—” Javier crumpled screaming to the floor, clutching his leg in agony. Mikael was standing over him, the pistol dangling by his side. A moment later the K’haisan fragments floated in towards Mikael’s body. They were absorbed into him, pushed themselves through his pores.
“You humans are impossibly stupid,” a layered and powerful voice gurgled. Mikael — or the K’haisan that impersonated him — drifted towards where Mikael’s dead body leaned against the wall. “I killed him an hour ago. The female almost three.”
The K’haisan split itself up, spinning in the air and materializing again next to the window. “You can’t kill us all,” Javier gasped, trying hard not to look at the spreading stain on the carpet.
“Maybe not. But do you really think you’ll be safe inside your domes forever?” It gestured at the room. “Do you think these four walls can stop me?” A dark laugh, a sound that came from the depths of the cosmos. “No. I’ll get in. You won’t believe how many of us walk among you already. You’ll just be one of the many planets to fall.”
The sound of wheels crunching on gravel sounded outside. “It seems that your backup has arrived.” It made a face. Was it sympathy? “You humans need so many for a simple task? Pathetic.” Its body shifted, fragmenting around in the air before rebuilding itself at a molecular level. Only this time it had Javier’s body, down to his build, face and clothes. Javier could only observe in awe and terror.
Something rattled downstairs. Backup trying to get in.
“I’m coming,” the K’haisan yelled in Javier’s voice. “Give me a second.” It tore the access card out of Javier’s pocket and pressed the silenced muzzle on his forehead.
“You’ll never—” Javier began.
“We already have.”
And everything went white.
Jeremy Szal was born in 1995 in the outback of Australia and was raised by wild dingoes. His science-fiction and fantasy work has appeared in Nature, Abyss & Apex, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, The Drabblecast, and has been translated into multiple languages. He is the fiction editor for Hugo-winning podcast StarShipSofa where he’s worked with authors such as George R. R. Martin, William Gibson, and Joe R. Lansdale. He is represented by John Jarrold of the John Jarrold Literary Agency. He carves out a living in Sydney, Australia. Find him at jeremyszal.com or @JeremySzal.