XIII. Unknown Unknowns

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"Do we have to watch this every year?" The teenager executed a well-practiced eye roll before she flopped bodily onto the couch.

That was her father's cue. "But Jessica, if ve do not keep vatch for ze WAMPIRE, ze beast vill surely keel us all! BEVARE! Bevare ze WAMPIRE!"

Jessica's mother entered the room bearing a heaping bowl of popcorn, turning off the lights on her way in. The well-dressed older woman smiled warmly; Jessica's suspiciously weak protestations were as much a part of the tradition now as the black-and-white film queued on the living room television, or her husband's torturing the rest of them with his hideously inaccurate impressions of the movie's characters.

"Doggy!" The final human member of the family stood at the window, hands and face pressed against the glass. As she often did, she shouted the word insistently at the rest of the family. "Doggy, doggy!"

"Doggy's playing outside, Julia, sweetie. Come get popcorn! Movie time!" It was a Halloween movie, but not a particularly scary one. Jessica loved to point out all the terribly executed special effects.

Julia was the only member of the family that liked the movie's one musical number; she would be belting random words from the chorus for weeks afterward. She reluctantly abandoned her post by the window, squirmed up onto her father's lap, grabbed a child-sized fistful of popcorn, and shoved it all into her mouth at once.

"Ah, ah, ah, ve finally are all gazzered! Begin zee ritual! BOY MOY GRAINDFADDAH'S GRAIVE, GET YE BACK, FOUL CREECHAH! Bleah!"

Jessica tried valiantly not to laugh at her father's mangling of the film's key quotes, but in the end he was simply too persistent and his delivery altogether too horrific, and she dissolved into giggles.

Her mother adjusted her glasses to hide a grin, and pressing the triangular button on the remote control, began the ritual.

Popcorn disappeared into stomachs. Jessica pointed out how the evil scientist's dastardly invention was very obviously made of painted buckets and milk crates. They had just arrived at the musical number, less than halfway through the film, when the buzzing of a cell phone interrupted the evening.

Jessica looked up as her father reached into a pocket, silencing the phone without looking at it.

He gave her a wink. "Privileges of rank."

She gave him a small smile before returning her attention to the terrible actors in terrible makeup reciting the awful song, and she smiled more widely at Julia's heartfelt contribution to the music. Then she remembered herself and adopted the more neutral expression she was trying to make her default.

The phone buzzed again. Jessica and her mother both watched as her father pulled the device out of his pocket with a sigh and read the messages on the screen with an even deeper sigh. Neither mother nor teenager needed to ask as the man stood up.

Julia looked around with sounds of confusion, and he picked her up and gave her a quick hug, answering her rapidfire questions authoritatively and in the order they were asked. "Yes, I have to go, sweetie. I love you. Everything is okay. You have to finish the movie for me, okay? You have to tell me how it ends."

Julia grudgingly accepted this explanation. The girls' mother didn't ask or say anything; she took both her husband's hands, squeezed, and gave him a kiss before he strode out of the room with purpose.

Minutes later, Jessica could see his ridiculous sports car leaving the driveway. It was always weird to see her dad driving it. He wasn't imposing at all. He wasn't cool. He was... a dad. Even if he was in better shape than most dads, he just looked out of place in the sleek red roadster.

She heard people joking sometimes about the mid-life crisis men her dad's age were supposed to have, but she had heard him drone on about that car enough to know that in fact, her father was just an enormous dork. He just really liked that car.

It was almost criminal that someone like him would own it, though. He drove like a total grandpa.

Jessica sighed. The movie was still fun, and it was far from the first time duty had pulled her father away. They had learned to deal with it as a family.

But she and her mother both still wondered what stupid thing had happened this time to drag him away from his family on the weekend before Halloween.

He drove through the neighborhood in a decidedly grandfatherly way.

It was a nice neighborhood. The area had good schools. It was less than a ten minute run to the beach. It was less than an hour's drive to San Francisco.

He made a complete stop at a stop sign, giving a smile and a friendly wave to two of his neighbors enjoying the pleasant breeze of an autumn California evening on their porch.

It wasn't quite so small a town that everyone knew each other, but the folks in this neighborhood were all friendly with one another.

The red sports car emerged from the upper-middle-class neighborhood and turned west toward the nearby highway. As it did so, the friendly smile melted away, and he donned sunglasses one-handed in the light of the setting sun.

His foot sank on the accelerator and the sports car's engine roared. The needle rose toward the speed limit, then leapt past it and continued to climb.

The red car blurred past a black and white one strategically parked behind an obscuring stand of palm trees.

In the police vehicle, a hand reached to switch on the red-and-blues before hesitating and stopping in realization.

The uniformed man picked up a handset instead.

"Sally," he said, "it looks like the admiral's in a real hurry to get somewhere. Everything all right up in town? Anything on the news?"

A moment later, the crackling reply came back. "Negative, Deputy. Just a few calls about missing pets."

The precise location of the installation was classified, but there were fifteen square miles of restricted airspace around it. The bulk of the facility was underground.

Since the strictest military discipline was enforced in every part of the installation, it wasn't a very relaxed environment at the best of times.

Now, though, the air was charged. Almost everyone was nervous, and the dominant coping mechanism was overcompensation in adherence to military discipline.

Around the control room, dozens of eyes checked and re-checked readings. Reports were requested and made. There were no hushed murmurs or bitten fingernails.

If you knew how to look, though, you could see the way the tension changed when the admiral strode in. Nobody cheered, smiled, or made exclamations of relief, but some snuck furtive glances and others sat just a bit straighter. His presence radiated reassurance even as he snapped out a rapidfire series of decisive orders.

It was reassuring because it was normal. The admiral was a decisive man. He didn't waste time. This was how he handled things. He left the control room with his most senior officers in tow and ushered them into a briefing room.

It was not a large, glamorous, or comfortable room. On the contrary, it was designed to be one of the most secure rooms in one of the most secure facilities in the United States. Even though there was seating for ten in the room, the space felt confined with its lack of ventilation and highly soundproofed walls.

The admiral was the last into the room. A red bulb lit up above the door as it locked.

"Now," he said, "will somebody tell me what's so important it had to interrupt monster movie night?"

His most senior officer cleared her throat and pushed a sealed envelope across the table to him. She cast a glance around the room as she began to speak.

"This briefing is classified TOP SECRET//ASTRAL LARK//NOFORN."

Eyebrows were raised around the room; the youngest person in the room was the first to speak up. "ASTRAL LARK, sir? I'm not cleared for that."

"It's new. Everyone here is being read in. Per your orders, Admiral."

The older man nodded once, and the senior officer slid eight identical sheets of paper around the room, efficiently collecting the signatures of all present. The admiral unsealed the envelope and pulled out the glossy full-page prints within.

The senior officer filed the last of the signatures in her briefcase before continuing.

"Approximately two hours ago, the USS Nevada was attacked at sea by an unmarked vessel of unknown origins exercising capabilities our analysts have designated "beyond next generation." The Nevada was seriously damaged, but casualties were minimal."

The admiral's face went still and a beat of silence went through the room.

"Our analysts believe the vessel had the capability to deliver a decisive strike and either broke off its attack intentionally or suffered an unexpected malfunction during its attack."

"Commodore," the admiral said, turning the glossy photographs to her, "You're telling me this... octo bug thing is some kind of vessel, that it damaged an Ohio-class submarine, and that whoever decided it was a good idea to attack a United States Navy vessel changed their mind halfway through and gave up?"

Her mouth tightened. "I'm afraid that's just about all we know, sir. The Nevada retreated immediately and fired retaliatory torpedoes. By the time drones were deployed to seek out the unidentified vessel, it was gone. We found the shrapnel and impact craters from the torpedoes, but the attacker didn't leave any trace. We are continuing to search the area."

The admiral furrowed a brow, tapping a fingernail on the photograph of the bizarre thing. "No warning shot? No radio broadcast? No... paint job, by the looks of it."

"The unidentified vessel made no attempts at communication and since the attack we have received no communications from any group or country taking credit."

The admiral sighed. "This attack doesn't make any sense as an act of terrorism or war. This isn't China's saber-rattling. So tell me, who the hell are these guys?" He shoved the pile of photographs onto the center of the table, and they were quickly picked up and passed around.

The young man sitting farthest away from the admiral spoke up again. "This design... it's really organic. Are we absolutely sure there's no possibility this is an undiscovered form of deep-sea life? The abyssal zone has more undiscovered species than discovered species. Maybe we just stumbled into their habitat?"

The admiral almost smiled. "How do we know there's more undiscovered species than discovered species? You're right, though, son. We need to take every possibility into account here. Give me some ideas, people. What is happening? Where did this thing come from?"

A mustached man with a pinched face drummed his fingers once. "Could be an unregistered private vessel. Something one of the billionaire types is cooking up, maybe they didn't account for the possibility of an Ohio flyby before deploying. I have contacts with a company pursuing solutions in soft-body robotics." He pointed to the amorphous parts of the hideous shape the submarine's cameras had captured.

The commodore shook her head. "I'm sorry, Doctor, but if this is a new development in soft-body robotics, it's far beyond anything any U.S. company has openly acknowledged. Those octopus arms punctured the Nevada's hull."

After long seconds of silence, the admiral spoke. "So it's likely, then, that we're looking at something of extraterrestrial origin."

The commodore paused, then smiled as everyone else in the room chuckled, puncturing the tension of the bizarre situation.

The admiral's serious expression returned after a moment and he rapped the table with his knuckles. "All right, within the hour I want to know--"

There was an urgent knock at the door and the military officials and contractors gave each other a momentary look of surprise. The commodore collected the classified photographs, wrote something on a sheet of paper, and secured them in her briefcase before rising to open the door.

The commodore opened her mouth to snap at the young man in the doorway, then, seeing the man's face, used a more moderate tone. "What's your business, seaman?"

The young man's face was dead white. "Sir, I'm terribly sorry to interrupt but the admiral needs to see what's happening on TV right now."

The admiral was already rising from his seat. "Report."

"Sir, it's-- the senator called, he said whatever's going on, it's ASTRAL LARK--"

Without another word, the admiral and his entourage returned to the control room in double time.

The older man visibly sagged as he looked up at the big screen in disbelief.

"What," he said to no one in particular, "is that?"

"Doggy! Doggy, doggy!" Julia had drunk two cans of ginger ale. It was monster movie night, after all, and the effects of the candy she'd get on Halloween would dwarf the post-bedtime rush she was now experiencing.

"Doggy's coming in later, Jules! Let's go brush our teeth, okay?" Jessica reached out to her little sister, but Julia wouldn't budge from her spot.

"No!!! Doggy! Doggy, doggy doggy doggy dog!"

"Okay. Have it your way, ya little monster." Jessica ruffled Julia's curly hair and went to her room. She could still hear her sister intermittently belting out her off-key rendition of the song from the movie intermingled with repeated identification of their golden retriever, who was presumably still doing his thing in the back yard.

She pulled out her phone and resumed texting her friends. A few of them were planning to have a bonfire out on the beach on Halloween, and she was definitely going. After taking Jules trick-or-treating, of course. Just because she was excited about going to a bonfire with her friends didn't mean she wasn't a great older sister.

"Doggy! Vampire! Doggy! Vampire! Doggy! Doggy vampire! Vampire doggy!"

"Yeah, Jules, that's right, he's a doggo of the night," Jessica called back absently as she figured out the right way to say she was excited for the bonfire without making it sound like she was excited for the bonfire.

"Doggy vampire! Doggy! Vampire! Vampire! Monster vampire doggy!"

Jessica touched her temples. If this was how Jules was going to be after two cans of ginger ale, she shuddered to think what she'd be like after gorging herself on her upcoming unlimited supply of high fructose corn syrup.


"Calm down! Jules! What's the matter?" Jessica rolled off her bed, sighing. Mom had gone for a late run, as she sometimes did when Dad had to go off to do... stuff.

She hadn't needed to ask to know what Dad would have said. "It's classified." Bleh.

"DOGGY VAMPIRE!! HELP! HELP! HELP!" Julia's voice took on a note of hysteria that made Jessica groan. She had never been affected this badly before, not by sugar nor by hokey old-timey monster movies. Was she acting out because Dad had to go in the middle of monster movie night?

Jessica heard the dog barking just before Julia's shouts drowned out the sound. Jessica's heart beat faster, a little irrationally. She gritted her teeth and stalked over to the living room just in time to hear Julia shriek and the dog emit a strangled yelp that suddenly cut off.

"Julia!" Jessica raced over to the window Julia was still glued to, where her sister was shrieking and weeping disconsolately.

"Julia! Sweetie! What happened? What's wrong?"

The little girl pointed out the window into the darkness. "VAMPIRE DOGGY!"

Jessica's eyes searched the dimly lit back yard.

Of the family golden retriever, there was not a trace.

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