XVII. Hit the Airwaves

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"Bruno! What's gotten into you? Calm down, it's okay! It's... wait. Is it--"

Victor broke off his attempt to quiet the suddenly-agitated dog and twisted in his seat, looking back at the plastic-wrapped thing. Bruno was barking extremely insistently.

He made a hand gesture to Bruno and the dog was silent. He unbuckled his seatbelt and stood, steadying himself with one hand. He raised his voice over the din of the engine and whirling helicopter blades.

"Airmen, to the fore, double time." He urgently waved the two forward, then pointed down. "Try not to touch it."

The two airmen moved obediently. Victor kept his eyes on the plastic sheeting for long seconds, unblinking. He didn't see the plastic move, but he felt his skin crawl.

He turned around and looked back and forth between his daughters.

"Girls, Bruno's pretty scared. Go ahead and hug him so he feels safe, okay?" He tried to give them a reassuring smile, but the look in his eyes made Jessica's stomach do a somersault.

"What's happening, Daddy?" Julia, on the verge of tears again, buried her face in Bruno's side. Jessica put her arms around the dog and her sister.

"Tell Bruno he's a good boy. Be right back." He did the smile again then turned to the young airmen sharing personal space with the other three adults.

"Give me your sidearm, Airman." The young woman unholstered her weapon, checked it, and handed it to him without blinking, but her eyes flicked to the plastic-wrapped shape.

Victor carefully moved aft, stepping around the plastic. He disengaged the safety on the firearm.

The plastic hadn't moved. Had it moved? It might be bigger than it had been.

He extended a foot heel-first and pressed it against the plastic.

He pulled his foot back quickly and sucked in a breath.

The plastic remained still.

Victor exhaled. He picked up a headset and held it to the side of his face. "Lieutenant, do we have any word from augh!" He grunted as his vision flickered with the intense pain in his right ankle.

He looked down. A crablike claw twice as large as a human hand had torn through the plastic and clamped shut on his leg like a bear trap.

Victor fired the sidearm into the claw point blank. The claw didn't release itself from his leg, although it visibly leaked blue fluid.

The thing didn't shriek or roar or gurgle. It was eerily silent as it thrashed in the plastic. Something was squirming, struggling to make its way out of the hole the claw had torn in the thick sheets of plastic.

The girls did scream, and the dog barked with hateful ferocity.

Victor tried to pull his leg away and gritted his teeth at the blinding pain. The thing was still thrashing.

He grabbed the headset he had dropped and spoke into it. "Lieutenant. On my mark, break hard right." He didn't wait to hear the reply. He pushed with his good leg and threw himself across the plastic, pulling the claw of the thing with him, nearly losing consciousness from the pain.

His sweat-slick hands closed on the door release lever and he pulled. Rushing wind and deafening sound buffeted everyone as the door opened to reveal the view of the night horizon and the ground below.

Victor overbalanced and nearly fell backwards, catching himself on the door frame but dropping the sidearm into the rushing wind and darkness.

With one hand, he grabbed for the tiedowns securing the writhing shape in the plastic. With the other, he scrabbled for the headset.

He had to bend to reach it, and as his weight shifted, he could feel the wrongness of bone jutting through skin.

His fingers closed on the headset just as he released the tiedowns.

For a second that felt like an hour, Victor wrapped a cargo strap around his left forearm, then he roared into the headset.

"MARK!"

The military vehicle banked seventy degrees and Victor lost his footing. Struggling to get his bearings, he hauled on the plastic with his right hand, and the bulk of the thing slid across the helicopter's deck.

Suckered arms emerged from the holes in the plastic, thrashing around for purchase too late as its center of gravity tipped over the edge and the thing fell out into the night, still holding Victor's foot tight.

Victor felt himself pulled bodily over the edge. The cargo strap cut into the flesh of his forearm, but the pain was nothing compared to the ripping sensation as most of his right foot and ankle separated from his body.

He screamed into the rushing roar, fighting to stay conscious and keep his grip on the cargo strap.

After an eternity, he felt hands pulling him up. The anxious airmen pulled him in and collapsed back into the helicopter while Mara spoke into the headset and slid the door shut, closing out the roaring wind. His ankle burned.

Face-down on the floor, blinking tears from his eyes, Victor turned his head to see the girls' pale faces wide-eyed in shock. He blinked as another shape surged at him, blurring toward his face.

Bruno licked Victor's face with some urgency, whining, ears back.

Victor reached one hand up to touch Bruno behind the ears.

"Good dog, Bruno."




"It's always something when we visit your parents, you know?" Agatha was doing her best to lighten the mood. Her best wasn't very good. "Remember last time we got that flat tire on our way back down?"

Danielle looked up from her phone and stared ahead for a moment. "That reminds me, we can't stay with my parents. The bridge is down and we need to get away from the coast anyway. But where are we going to go?"

Agatha was driving again, wincing every time they went over a bump and the car made a sound that made it very clear its suspension did not appreciate its recent treatment. She shook her head at her wife.

"We've been wanting to get out of the Tenderloin for forever anyway, well, now's the time. Hey, this way we don't even have to worry about packing and moving. We'll only have time to grab clothes, computers and Alan anyway."

Any optimism in her words was undercut by the edge in her voice. She looked over at Danielle, who had been obsessively refreshing social media and news sites.

Agatha sighed. "Do they know what it is yet? Russian superweapon? Great Old One? Avenging angel?"

Danielle frowned. "Nobody actually knows anything, but that scumbag Senator actually said it's a demon summoned by the immorality of San Francisco. On live television. In the Senate."

Agatha's stony expression didn't change, but she audibly exhaled through her nostrils. "Have they tried throwing holy water at it yet?"




"Screw that guy." Commodore Omar muttered. She hung up the phone and turned as the Admiral emerged from the medical bay. His face was drawn. His right leg now ended in a temporary prosthesis and he steadied himself with a cane.

She saluted. "Sir. The Joint Chiefs have not authorized use of cruise missiles in this engagement, conventional or nuclear. According to the Senator, the President has expressed reservations about the danger of deploying SLBMs in such close proximity to a major city on U.S. soil."

Admiral Mercury growled. "Bull. The thing's in the middle of the damn bay. The Abraham Lincoln won't have a firing solution for an hour, and there's no telling what that thing will do in that time. I'd like to know if the President would have the same concerns if this happened in a swing state."

Commodore Omar continued. "The specimen has been recovered and is secured in the morgue. It's apparently still alive, but crippled. Doctor Carruth is making her initial observations now."

The admiral nodded. "I'll drop in to watch. Monitor the situation in the Bay and alert me when it starts moving."

She saluted and strode briskly in the direction of the control room. Grimacing, Victor adjusted his grip on the cane and began the excruciating process of walking to the morgue.

Every step was painful, but that wasn't the worst part. The worst part was that it was unignorable, and as long as he felt the pain, he could still feel the sensation of the flesh tearing apart around shattered bone.

Some of his officers walked past and the admiral stood straighter, giving them a cursory nod and salute in passing. Once they were out of sight, Victor sagged.

Mara and the kids were safe. Thanks to Bruno.

Mara had made phone calls. As a senior executive for a successful private military logistics company, she had connections. Doctor Carruth was among them.

The metal doors of the morgue came into sight. He took several deep breaths, then opened them and stepped into the antiseptic-smelling room.

A work space had been cleared in the center of the room and an inflated plastic bubble surrounded the mess of white chitin, black flesh, and blue blood.

"Admiral!" A woman wearing a plastic face shield and an otherwise pristine lab coat splattered with blue and black approached him quickly. She held up gloved hands apologetically.

"I have to say, I thought the surprise helicopter ride was going to be the most unexpected thing to happen to me today, but this is really different. Sir." She cleared her throat.

"I've got news for you already, and I have no idea what you're going to think. But first I do want to say that it's unbelievable, no, criminal that you have all these gene sequencers and apparently never use them. If I had just one--"

"Doctor Carruth," Admiral Mercury said, simply.

"All right, all right, sorry. I know, military budgets, spend it or lose it, but seriously you have all this equipment-- okay, fine. So, this thing."

"This animal."

"Funny you should say that, because that's the headline. This is not an animal."

The admiral looked down through the clear plastic at the thing that had ripped off his foot. "Pretty convincing robot, then."

She shook her head. "Oh, it's way weirder than that. When I say it's not an animal, I mean it does not belong to Kingdom Animalia."

He leaned back on a table and winced a little. "Why don't you start at the beginning?"

The doctor ran her hands through her hair and puffed out her cheeks. "All right. First of all, it's got features and adaptations from all over the animal kingdom. Not only that, but your nifty high-speed gene sequencers, which apparently have been gathering dust here until now, showed that it's not just related to the creatures it's imitating."

She held up a microscope slide on which a dark splotch was suspended. "This sample was taken from the sucker arms growing from its face."

"The tentacles."

"No. Different kind of cephalopod limb. And we know that, because that," she said, pointing to the slide, "is octopus DNA."

The admiral's eyebrows lowered. "So this is, what, a mutated octopus?"

"Again, no. Mutations don't do anything like this." She held up a different slide stained with a blue droplet. "This is its blood. It's called hemocyanin. It's crab blood."

The admiral's frown deepened. "So it's an octopus-crab hybrid?"

"This is something even weirder, Admiral. So far I've established at least eight distinct DNA signatures. And it heals fast. I thought I had mismeasured when I noticed it, but no. The thing just heals really fast."

"Like a jellyfish or starfish?"

"Excellent guess, Admiral, but that capability seems to come from somewhere else. So let's talk about these other weird organs it has."

He said nothing, but narrowed his eyes slightly, waiting for her to continue.

"This thing has no gonads. It has no tomalley or hepatopancreas. It has lungs. It has glands that generate some really nasty stuff. And it's got this."

She pointed to a covered dish. It held a bloody, tangled organ of some kind. She traced one long, wiry thread growing out of what looked like a pale, lumpy stomach. The thread was very long and looked like it had been coiled tightly. Severed bits of connective tissue still clung to it. "Any guesses on what that is?"

The admiral shook his head slowly.

"This is just an educated guess at this point, sir. But... did you ever build a crystal radio when you were a kid?"

His eyes looked at the coiled, wiry thing. "You're saying that's some kind of antenna? That this thing has radio?"

"That's my best hypothesis looking at it," she said. "You know what I found when I sequenced its DNA?"

He stared at her blankly.

"Nothing. No DNA. No nucleotides. Whatever that is, it did not evolve on this planet."

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