XXI. Or Is It?

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"Direct hit!" Shyamala called out. She typed commands to force refresh data on the big screens, and one by one, distortions and static resolved into various camera angles of the torn wreckage of the North Beach. "Sir, it appears the airwaves are clearing. The jamming has stopped."

The old man still looked tense. "Commodore, get me the best telemetry we have on the strike and get that SIGINT truck in there now."

Sarah spoke urgently into the phone.

"Yes, Mr. Godinez. I'm uploading footage of the attack now, including the missile strike that killed the thing. We are on location now, ready to go live on your signal."

Godinez's tinny voice was tinged with disbelief.

"How the hell are you on location when-- weren't you at the bridge when it-- wait, I see the upload coming through now." He went silent for a moment and Sarah waited with all the patience she could muster.

"Okay. Okay. Wow. You're ready to go live now?"

Sarah made frantic hand motions to her crew.

Images of the creature occupied three of the big screens now. One was the best telephoto shot available, another showed the explosion of the cruise missile strike, and the third was the live feed from KXSF.

Shyamala cradled the receiver between her ear and her shoulder as she typed.

The old man was watching the words sliding past on the KXSF live feed chyron.


He exhaled a long sigh. "I give it ten minutes."

Shyamala looked up at him. "Until what, sir?"

He didn't reply.

It smelled very strongly of cat urine in the battered Subaru.

Danielle was uncharacteristically silent. Minutes after they'd left home, their cell phones and the radio had stopped working. Traffic was bad on the Bay Bridge, but not as bad as Agatha would have expected considering the destruction. Maybe people weren't keen to get trapped on another bridge getting knocked down.

Maybe they were right, she queasily thought to herself.

They spent long minutes in the silence and darkness of the bridge's lower deck. Traffic came to a stop a few times, but only momentarily.

"It's like, I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop, you know?"

Danielle nodded hard, switching her phone on and off airplane mode again.

Just as the Subaru emerged from the far side of the bridge, Danielle's phone began to erupt in the Ba-ring! Ba-ring! Ba-ring! tone that annoyed Agatha so much. She had never been happier to hear it.

Agatha let out a long breath that became a mirthless laugh.

"Okay. Okay. Let's get off the highway up here and get mister Turing here cleaned up. I'm starving suddenly, are you starving?"

Danielle laughed a little too. "What, with this smell? How can you be even a little hungry?"

"You know what the last thing I ate was? Your mom's stupid porkless roast."

"How dare you roast my mom's roast. My mom's roast is a national treasure."

"Okay, okay, but that was like eight hours ago!"

Danielle laughed, leaning her head on Agatha's shoulder and putting her fingers in Agatha's hair while she looked back at their incensed and anxious cat.

"You sound like Alan! FEED ME FEED ME MEOW MEOW, ha. Yeah. Let's get to 580 East then stop and get cleaned up."

Twenty minutes later, Agatha pulled the much-abused Subaru off the highway and pulled into a gas station. Agatha used the bathroom first while Danielle put gas in the car. Before coming out she bought some cleaning wipes, some smell-killing spray stuff, a case of bottled water, and five gas station sandwiches.

Danielle's eyes widened when she saw the sandwiches. "Seriously? We can stop somewhere else! Have you had these? They're terrible!"

Agatha shrugged. "I really don't want to stop more than we have to, you know? Let's just keep going a ways."

"How far is a ways, Agatha?"

Agatha cleared her throat. "Vegas?"

"Veg-- are you serious?"

Agatha raised her hands. "Look, let's... let's just get away from the coast. Okay? Besides, wouldn't it be fun to see your sister? Hit some slots? See some shows?"

Danielle took her hands and kissed her. "You are no good at all at wheedling. I'll tell you one thing, we are not eating gas station sandwiches the whole way to Vegas."

Agatha felt warmth for the first time since they'd made it off the Golden Gate Bridge. "I'm telling you, they're really not that bad." She grinned and pulled out a roll of cleaning wipes.

Danielle shook her head and went inside to use the bathroom.

Agatha pulled Alan's carrier out and turned on the radio. She quickly switched away from the news, searching until she finally found a channel playing music. She got to work soaking up the urine and spraying the upholstery with the odor killer.

"Our little genius made quite the mess, hm? Why are you like this, my cat? It's quite the enigma." Her voice lilted in a tone she only used when it was just the two of them. From his carrier on top of the car, Alan meowed indignantly.

"Yes, yes, I'll be cleaning you up momentarily, my liege." She sighed, then leaned over to fix the radio. It sounded like she hadn't quite tuned it in right, and the music was tinged by static.

She frowned as she twisted the dial. She'd thought she had it, but now, try as she might, it seemed like the signal was only getting worse. The music gave way to static tinged with something between a completely blotto dialup modem and out-of-tune whale song.

Atop the car, in his carrier, Alan yowled.

Agatha jumped, hitting her head.

"Agh! What is it, kitty? Oof." She rubbed her head.

Alan didn't stop. His yowl rose into a screech. His carrier shook violently, adding an off-beat accompaniment to the rising garbled signal coming from the speakers.

"What is it?"

Agatha heard Danielle calling out from the direction of the gas station. "Alan? What's the matter?"

Agatha turned to look at her wife and her blood ran cold. She pointed. "D-- BEHIND YOU!"

Agatha watched as Danielle turned in slow motion to see the shape rising from the shadows behind the gas station. It didn't roar or gurgle or whine. Instead, the radio in the car made a rolling, clicking hiss that made Agatha's hair stand on end.

Danielle opened her mouth to scream and then the thing had her in its massive, crab-like claws. Suckered arms on its face wrapped around her, covering her mouth and cutting off her scream.

Something broke in Agatha and before she knew what she was doing she had grabbed Alan's carrier and hurled it into the passenger's seat. Her fingers found the ignition and she slammed her foot on the accelerator before her weight had landed in the driver's seat.

In two bounds, the thing was on the other side of the gas station parking lot.

Agatha stared ahead unblinking.

"Absolutely the hell not."

She pulled the wheel of the Subaru and its suspension shrieked as it spun around the gas pumps, past the building, and directly into the thing that had taken Danielle.


Agatha slammed on the brakes as soon as the smashed-up compact car impacted the scaly many-eyed crab octopus monster. The radio erupted into a high keening punctuated by warbling bloops.

She tore out of the car, darting forward to kick away suckered arms and stomping down hard on a cracked claw before grabbing Danielle's hand and pulling with all her might.

The thing's suckers ripped away skin from Danielle's neck and arms, but she stumbled away, crying out and bleeding.

Agatha looked at the thing under the front wheel of the car, her heart pounding. Its legs scrabbled fruitlessly at the asphalt and gravel, but it was pinned by the weight of the vehicle. Breathing hard, Agatha reached into the car, opened the glove box, and pulled out a butane cigarette lighter and a handful of napkins. She grabbed Alan's carrier and stepped back from the vehicle, putting Alan down where Danielle was sitting on the ground and shaking.

She kept one eye on the thing as she stepped back to a fuel pump eight feet from where she'd hit the thing.

"Maybe you didn't hear me," she growled as she stalked back, stretching the hose as far as it would go. Sneering, she pumped gasoline onto the thing's writhing face. The sounds on the radio were high and urgent.

She twisted together the napkins and lit one end with the cigarette lighter.

"Just so we're clear? I said ABSOLUTELY. THE HELL. NOT."

She tossed the bundle of flaming napkins down and the gasoline-doused thing erupted in flames. The thing thrashed violently, shaking the car and denting and tearing the metal body of the car. The tone on the radio rose to a shrill scream that dissolved into static.

Then, after several minutes, the thing stopped moving. Like a switch had been flipped, the static ended and music played from the speakers of the now-flaming Subaru. Agatha collapsed next to Danielle, still breathing hard. Danielle clutched her, and they hugged each other while the thing burned.

Alan eventually gave a hesitant mew.

Agatha stood up shakily. "Come on. Let's get indoors. I'll grab our stuff out of the trunk before that catches fire too." She looked at their much-abused vehicle.

"You think insurance'll cover this?"

Shyamala advanced the footage by another frame and frowned.

She backed up twelve frames, paused, then stepped through one at a time.

"Sir, you need to see this," she said.

The old man looked at her monitor. "What is it?"

She pointed at the images on the screen. It was the uncompressed full resolution footage from the news crew's coverage of the attack, in the moments just before the cruise missile struck.

She had enlarged the image; even at high resolution the result was slightly pixelated.

"The news crew didn't shoot this with a high speed camera, but I isolated the frames just before and after the C-HGP hit."

She tapped a key, advancing the frames one at a time. Five frames before impact, a swelling appeared on the thing's hindsection.

Two frames before impact, the swelling had grown drastically in size.

In the frame before the missile impacted, a dark blur extended out of the shape of the creature. The thing's back legs had separated and torn where the thing had emerged.

And then in the next frame, the cruise missile hit.

"It launched an escape pod," the admiral breathed.

Shyamala nodded. She kept her expression cool and she resisted the urge to wipe off her palms.

She typed commands to switch to the data stream showing the likely locations of ASTRAL LARK's scattered smaller forms.

She frowned after a moment, adjusted time parameters in her script pulling the location data from the FCC's triangulating radio monitoring stations, and played back the last eight minutes of data sped up to a few seconds.

"Sir," she said, pointing to the screen.

As one, the red dots were moving west. Toward the water.

"It's pulling back to regroup," the old man said. "This is a mess."

The nervous lieutenant approached. "It's the Joint Chiefs, sir. They're asking for you rather urgently."

The old man sighed.

"I was wondering what was taking them so long. Inform the Joint Chiefs the commanding officer of this installation will be with them shortly."

Shyamala had been tense before, but now her heart started pounding.


He sighed deeply, his fingers clenched on his cane. Finally, he struck the floor with it twice sharply.

He looked up at Shyamala. "Commodore Omar, the Joint Chiefs did not authorize the C-HGP strike."

There was a beat.

"In fact, I was directly ordered not to engage with submarine-launched ordnance by the Joint Chiefs, per orders from the President himself, I'm given to understand."

Shyamala's world rocked. "Sir... you--"

"Under Article 92, you have a duty to perform now, Commodore."

He straightened and looked at her steadily.

She glanced around and lowered her voice. "I-- Sir! I can't-- are you really--"

"Shyamala," he said softly. "You're gonna do great. We both know you already run this place. You'll make me proud."

She blinked hard and exhaled once, sharply. Then she straightened.

"Admiral Mercury, I hereby relieve you of command. Under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, you are under arrest for the willful violation of a direct order."

The admiral didn't blink. He spoke clearly and loudly enough to be heard by everyone in the room. "I stand relieved, Commodore."

Shyamala called out to one of the men standing guard at the door. "Escort the admiral to the brig."

The admiral nodded ever so slightly, keeping his eyes on Shyamala.

She took a breath. "Make sure he has anything he needs. Do you want us to send your family in, Admiral?"

He shook his head. "Give me twenty minutes first."

The admiral and his escort began walking away at the speed of the admiral's painful limp.


He turned at the doorway.

"You saved San Francisco today, sir. I'll testify to that at the court martial."

He nodded. "It's in your capable hands now."

Then he and his escort turned and left.

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