XX. Food for Thought

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For all he was glad to be back in the van, Jason was tired, mosquito-bitten, and anxious. He checked his phone for the twentieth time, but it still showed no reception.

He might have dealt with those things stoically, or at least any of them individually. They were not the biggest source of his discomfort.

"Do y'think 'm stupid? Eh? You're taking me for a ride. This is all a hoax. I didn't sign any releases! I do not consent to be on this prank show!"

Sarah's solution to the issue of the loud, insistent boat owner --who, while he had given back their wallets and keys, still adamantly believed that this was all some kind of prank or trick of their doing-- was to acknowledge him as little as possible.

Unfortunately, he had followed them doggedly, peppering them with questions, insisting that they had sabotaged his cell phone and that the events in the Bay were clearly some kind of holograms projected for a hoax for which they were responsible. Jason had felt a surge of hope once the news van was in sight.

The hope had been crushed when the man had fought his way into the van after them and Sarah had insisted they didn't have time to kick him out.

"We are taking you for a ride, sir, that's very good," Sarah said, distracted. "We're taking you for a ride in our KXSF news van, pursuing a breaking news story for KXSF, the major local television news station with which you may be familiar."

"Yeah, bunch of fake news and brainwashing," the man muttered. "I've seen 'em putting in the wires for your hologram projectors!"

"Oh, I hope you'll let us interview you, Mr. Williams," she said with a blatantly insincere smile.

Jason was in the middle seat between Dave and Williams, and every time he spoke, his rancid breath made Jason wish for death.

"Well, where're we going then?" The prickly man raised his chin challengingly. His scraggly beard impinged on Jason's personal space.

After a beat, Adam turned to look at Sarah. Adam was driving while Sarah messed with the van's FM radio.

She raised a finger. "Hear that?"

She had been twisting the radio frequency knob, yielding little more than different flavors of white noise and the occasional inaudibly muffled voice, but the frequency she stopped on now filled the car with a new sound. She twisted the knob a little more, dialing in on the sound, and turned up the volume.

Terrible, warbling static like a heartbroken, drunk modem filled the van. The sounds stopped and started, interspersed with rhythmic clicks and something reminiscent of whale song.

Adam swallowed. "Is that what I think it is?"

Sarah started nodding. "Yeah, nothing else can get through at all right now. It's overpowering everything else. And... it's getting weaker. We're going the wrong way! It's going east!"

Adam started as Sarah got more excited. "Turn us around! We have to stay on that signal!"

Adam grimaced, pulling off the road to get enough clearance to make the U-turn. He cut off an oncoming truck, which slammed its brakes and honked in outrage as the news van made the sharpest turn it was capable of.

As they proceeded east, the sound grew louder on the radio and the van went silent. The sounds were dense, varied, and organized, like music or conversation.

It did not sound like anything that would be produced by an animal, a machine, or a person.

Sarah spun in her seat, looking back at Dave. "Get ready to start shooting. Fresh batteries, fresh memory cards, grab 'em now."

"Wh-- y-you made that up. This is a tape, some kind of trick. Special effects," the man in the sleeveless undershirt said with some uncertainty.

Sarah just ignored Williams now, looking down at her phone and tapping buttons.

"See! She's on her phone! How's that working then if this isn't all some big hoax?"

Sarah waggled the phone without looking back at him, audibly rolling her eyes. "I'm recording this for later analysis. You don't need a network connection to--"

She cut off as a long, low, loud, bassy tone sounded from the speakers.

Wincing, Adam reached out to turn down the volume, but Sarah caught his hand and looked up, narrowing her eyes.

The loud bass tone stopped.

Sarah didn't take her eyes off the horizon. "Dave, start recording. Now."

Jason started to open his mouth to ask why, then stopped. Ahead, rising above the high-rises of the North Beach, a dark shape rose.

It supported itself on many long, powerful limbs, some with backward knees, others seemingly boneless. The shape of the balloon had bloomed into four massive petals of flesh, and the bulbous mess of limbs and suckers and scales was suspended in the air on limbs that were much longer and thicker than they had been when it had descended into the water.

Jason could swear he saw clusters of beady red eyes atop the mountainous thing.

"Y-- that's-- I--" Williams was gibbering, looking at the thing as it moved altogether faster than something that size should have. It launched itself forward, its limbs twisting through the sky to support itself as it landed.

"Jason," Sarah said, her eyes still locked on the thing, "if he keeps talking, make him stop. I don't care how."

Jason and Williams looked at each other for an instant. Then both looked back at the monster Adam was still driving toward for some reason.

"Is it-- is it doing what I think it's doing?" Adam slammed on the brakes as the van approached traffic that had come to a standstill.

"Dave, tell me you're getting this." Sarah had her phone camera pointed at the thing now.

The thing reached down with an enormous suckered arm and plucked a car from the street below, feeding it up into the waiting petals of black flesh. Within, something pulled the blue sportscar up, metal crumpling as it was pulled out of sight.

"Angle sucks, lighting sucks, traffic sucks. We need a better shot." Dave called out.

Sarah started to check the map app on her phone, then cursed at the No Reception message. She spun around. "Do any of you know how far we are from Coit Tower?"

Williams chimed in immediately. "It's a five minute hike from here. But it closed at five."

Adam and Sarah were already climbing out. Williams scrambled to follow; Jason and Dave each grabbed equipment and moved to catch up.

Williams looked back at the news van abandoned in the street. "You're really just going to-- didn't you hear me? It's closed!" He puffed, struggling to keep up with most of the sprinting news crew.

"If you think that's gonna stop her," Jason wheezed alongside him as Dave somehow kept pace with the other two, "you really don't know Sarah Landsburg."

"Estimated time to impact?" The old man was gripping his cane with both hands.

Shyamala typed. The Nevada's firing solution wasn't just GPS-based. The highly classified Common Hypersonic Glide Platform, a hypersonic cruise missile, had advanced electronic warfare capabilities, including the ability to lock onto the source of a radio signal. Once the missile was within range of the hostile creature, it would home directly to the source of the jamming.

"Estimate cruise missile will reach the target in eight minutes, sir."

The old man nodded. Just for an instant, Shyamala saw pain flicker across his face.

"What's the word on the electronic countermeasures package?"

"Coast Guard says we can have a SIGINT truck there from Yerba Buena in fifteen."

He growled. "They can see this thing from Treasure Island. Tell them they're already late to the dance. In the meantime, Kraken Squadron will engage. We pushed it back once before; let's see if we can do it again."

"Aye, sir," Shyamala said, and lifted the receiver to give the order.

"--absolutely no respect for public property?" Williams was gasping for breath and waving his arms weakly. "Why does this man even own lockpicks, much less know how to use them?"

The elevator doors opened, and, stumbling forward, he broke off. The thing was closer. People screamed and ran, abandoning their vehicles. The news crew scrambled as Sarah rattled off directions.

"But-- it's--" The reality of the situation finally seemed to be hitting. "It's-- it's all real? The bridge-- all those people--"

Sarah took the man gently by the arms and maneuvered him aside. "Mr. Williams, thank you very much for all of your kind assistance. We need to do this now."

She moved with purpose. "Jason, get Adam miked. Dave, stop rolling for any reason and I will throw you off this tower. Pretty boy. Showtime."

Adam took a microphone from Jason and closed his eyes for a moment. Then he opened his eyes and looked into the camera.

"This is Adam Roberts reporting for KXSF News. We're here at Coit Tower overlooking the North Beach where the creature that destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge now appears to be targeting motor vehicles and pedestrians with no readily apparent pattern. As you can see and hear, Navy fighters have resumed bombardment, but despite the creature's size it actually appears to be dodging the missiles--"

"Estimated time to impact, two minutes."

Since the aerial creatures' powerful attacks made lighter-than-air navigation significantly more costly than I had originally estimated, I had recouped most of the gases inflating the elevation platform and repurposed the lobes of flexible, damage-resistant polymer composite. The modular design lent itself to a range of simple reconfigurations that didn't require me to manufacture new materials or significantly alter my logistical and metabolic pathways, like the legs that now supported the platform and pulled specimens in for harvesting.

The automated process that tracked incoming projectiles flared. I leapt away and it passed me harmlessly. It would probably have been harmless if it had impacted the excavator, but it might have inconveniently obscured some of my sensory modalities.

The puzzles of the surface had so far only yielded answers that raised many more questions.

What were these elaborate deposits of steel and silicon dioxide? Was it a variant of the corals I had discovered below? From a geological perspective, that didn't make much sense to me.

Hunter-harvesters in the water had recovered the mangled remains of several of the impossibly fast flying creatures. They were unfortunately too damaged to be a quick and easy study, but I looked forward to analyzing their designs more closely, as well as the designs the hunter-harvesters exploring inland were retrieving for me.

I pursued another such line of inquiry as the mysteries of the surface deepened. I turned my attention back down to the diverse population of boxy metal things.

I directed the now-ambulatory excavation platform to investigate the metabolisms and computational organs of the metal-and-plastic-and-flesh symbiote pairs. This was rather easily accomplished; the metabolic processes of the inefficient-but-fast wheeled things seemed to generally be located in the anterior segment of their bodies, and were usually easily accessible after stripping away the thin protective shell.

Hydrocarbons, internal combustion, sophisticated mechanical gear systems. Nonsensical in an evolutionary context without the symbiotic organisms that apparently served these creatures' needs.

I wondered if the symbiotes had evolved their highly advanced computational organs as a result of their dependence on the much faster, sturdier, and longer-lived metal creatures.

Annoyingly, the symbiotes' computational organs were much larger and more complex than other creatures whose ghosts I had summoned. With the data I had, I couldn't yet summon even one of the symbiote creatures into a simulated reality for further study.

That problem would be easily solved by building a baseline computational model for the species. That would significantly reduce the required resources to simulate them.

I just needed to collect enough specimens to flesh it out.

"One minute to impact."

"--doesn't appear to be moving further downtown at this time. It appears the creature is... um... targeting certain vehicles. If you own an--"

Sarah interrupted, pointing. "Look. It's doing something different."

The thing had crouched lower to the ground and was moving faster now, in quick, darting motions, seeking out groups of people.

Then it turned and its dripping alien limbs twitched and flashed out, carving into buildings. It pulled people out of the rubble of their walls and ceilings.

Adam turned to watch and Dave pushed in, zooming in close on the thing's legs. Smaller limbs growing out of the larger ones were snapping out and snatching people up, pulling them screaming up into the petals lined with what looked like massive black cilia that pulled them in headfirst before their headless bodies dropped away.

Adam turned to Sarah pleadingly. "How do... how do you even report that?"

Old man Williams threw up over the railing. Jason patted him on the back.

Sarah looked at Adam. "Just tell the people what you're seeing. As long as it's true, that's what matters."

He nodded and rubbed his face before clearing his throat and looking back and forth between the camera and the ongoing massacre punctuated by ineffectual explosions.

"The creature now attacking the North Beach of San Francisco is killing people and destroying property at a terrible rate. It appears to be intentionally targeting homes and businesses in its indiscriminate campaign of atrocity. It's--" He blanched and began scrambling backwards. "It appears to be moving south quickly. In our direction. The-- the thing moves with extraordinary speed for its size, it's almost on top of us--"

With a leap, it passed within a hundred yards of the tower. An enormous red eye glared down at them; writhing appendages glistened. Within the flower-like bulb of black flesh, Adam could see what looked like the tip of a massive... beak?

Adam stuttered into the microphone. Someone was screaming. "It's-- the creature is--"


The explosion was deafening. Sarah blinked; her vision was filled with spots and her ears were ringing. As her vision cleared, she saw Dave-- bless him-- had doggedly kept the camera pointed at the action.

Adam found his voice, somehow. Bless him. "Some-- some kind of heavy artillery has been deployed against the creature! Was that a cruise missile? Did-- is it--"

All at once, all their phones began to chime with notifications.

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