XXII. Post Mortem

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My contingency plan worked exactly as designed.

The smaller segmented structure I controlled zipped through the water. It was specialized for speed; the first stage that had explosively propelled me from the ambulatory form had been discarded.

The pod containing me and my findings from my exploratory venture wound down into the depths, down to a dormant many-legged form.

It didn't have as many legs as it had when I had disconnected half of my excavator's modular design from it and repurposed its mechanisms into the exploratory vehicle, but I could recover the lost mass.

All the same, the events of my surface jaunt were surprising and concerning. I had only barely noticed the hypersonic projectile in time to engage the ejection mechanism.

I still had no sense of where the highly-accelerated projectile had come from. The kinetic energy from the raw speed of its impact had done considerable damage to my convertible surface exploration platform.

If I hadn't ejected in time, the projectile probably would not have critically injured me behind my layers of armor and redundant safety systems. Even so, after the terrifyingly loud explosions that had woken me in this new era, I didn't want to take any chances.

I tingled with fascination and disbelief as I reviewed the data. The convertible surface exploration platform would have made it simple to quietly study the reptilian creatures I'd seen with my earlier scouting balloons before the extinction event. I had believed the platform's first configuration, a hydrogen-filled envelope propelling itself with long anchored appendages and the occasional use of thrusters, would allow me to explore the surface safely with relatively low power expenditure.

In some ways, the lighter-than-air configuration had been a success. My harvesters had collected a cornucopia of diverse specimens. A veritable feast of data had fallen into the water to be retrieved by hunter-harvesters after I knocked down the strange steel bridge. But where had the steel come from?

However, the chief advantage of the form, its low power expenditure, was obviated by the need to continuously defend against the aggressively territorial sky creatures. I had badly wanted to keep power expenditure low due to the already ludicrous power costs of the radio organs I used to coordinate this generation of my hunter-harvesters. With all the powerful radio interference emanating from the land-based life, I had needed to boost the signal so much I'd drained my energy stores by almost a third to communicate with the hunter-harvesters.

To keep the drones' power requirements low, I had designed them to send only limited bursts of information back in certain circumstances. I was regretting that now; I'd jettisoned my radio organs when I ejected from the exploration form, so any of the hunter-harvesters that came to an unfortunate end would do so without my knowledge until I could get radio communications back online.

The second form I'd employed, a relatively simple reconfiguration, had worked much better. It had much better mobility, and had allowed me to harvest a number of fascinating specimens.

Despite my expeditious retreat, I had still learned a great deal from the intensely territorial inhabitants of the world above the shoreline. Materials and design concepts swirled in my mind.

Biped, quadrupeds, wheeled designs. Many designs of radio receiver. Then, reviewing the collected data, I made the most exciting discovery yet.

It was a slow, clumsy design for computronium that appeared to have nothing to do with the squishy thinking matter this world's life kept in their skulls. Electronic impulses traveled across specialized pathways through silicon wafers containing miniaturized transistors!

It wasn't going to revolutionize the way I cracked holofractal hashes, but the principles were sound. A few of the underlying concepts might even speed up the process of cracking the payload. That wasn't what excited me the most.

What excited me the most was the design process these things implied. They did not appear to be evolved designs. They were not carbon-based, and contained no DNA.

Was this a construction, then? Did the metal things' symbiotes have instinctive behaviors that produced these elaborate constructions?

Unfortunately, I was still far short of a working model for the symbiotes' neural processes.




Hopefully, I tried instantiating the scarcely-functional fragment of a ghost.

My model didn't account for its unique sensory modalities, but I hacked together what I could based on the vertebrates I'd examined so far.

I tried to represent the electronic components in that composite sensory modality. I traced some common themes and patterns, then fed them as sensory data into the flickering echo of a mind. If the symbiotes had an instinctive understanding of their masters' designs, I hoped to get at least a rough idea of it.

I was quickly disappointed. The incomplete ghost's only response was a forceful exhalation across the vocal chords in an immediate attempt to make what I guessed to be a warning call.

I would need to study these creatures much more closely, but I was hesitant to build more large, expensive surface exploration vehicles under the circumstances.

I needed more sensory infrastructure. I needed more brains. I needed answers.

Victor had told the concerned young seaman that he didn't need anything but a few minutes to himself.

In the silence, sitting on a cot in the tiny holding cell, the admiral looked down at his hands.

He knew he had done the right thing. He knew that if it weren't for his decision, hundreds or thousands more might be dead.

It didn't make him feel better.

A codeword classified state secret was now all over national news. The Golden Gate Bridge had fallen, snuffing out dozens of souls. Sixteen airmen under his command had lost their lives.

And the thing had gotten away.

He hunched down and scrubbed at his face with his hands.

His leg.

Pain flared every time he thought about that thing. He couldn't keep his thoughts off it. He itched with the urge to do something.

But there was nothing left for him to do, so his mind kept circling back to questions he had no way of answering.

Would more of them emerge from the ocean? What could be done to defend against this thing? Why did the leaders of his country insist on--


He looked up suddenly, then wiped furiously at his face and almost stood up.

"Jess! Jules! Mara! ...Bruno?!" Victor laughed despite himself. "There's no dogs allowed in the brig!"

"Privileges of rank," Mara said, giving him a wink and a sad smile.

"WOOF!" Bruno said happily.

His family rushed over to his cell and they held hands through the bars. Julia's arms fit easily between the bars and she reached out to hug her father's arm.

He laughed, ruffled her hair, and lifted her hand to kiss it. "You're, uh... probably wondering why I've called this meeting."

Julia nodded solemnly and Jessica rolled her eyes. Mara spoke up.

"Actually, I'm given to understand that you're in here for an incredibly important reason. You broke the law."

Victor looked at her suddenly. She grinned. "You tried to get out of monster movie night only halfway through!" She held up a VHS tape. "They're gonna wheel in a TV. Seaman Richards says they've still got dozens of those old CRT TVs with built-in VCRs, and he's gonna roll it in here."

Victor blinked hard, then reached down to give the best hug he could to the girls through the bars. Bruno licked his hand, wagging his tail furiously.

"You know, I think that's the best idea I've heard all night."

Mara turned. "I don't suppose there's popcorn anywhere around here?"

Victor pointed. "There's a vending machine in the mess hall that has some. There's microwaves in there too."

She nodded. "Okay. Be right back with popcorn."

She left the room and spoke to the guard posted there. In moments, she was escorted in the direction of the mess hall.


Victor looked at Jessica.

"How come you're in here, really?" She was holding it together, but he could see she was spooked.

Victor blew his cheeks out.

"You deserve to know why I'm in here. And your mom was joking, but I did break the law. It's hard to explain, but I think you deserve to know."

Julia was barely listening, just clinging to Victor through the bars. Jessica shook her head.

"Then what? You're like, an admiral! They don't just--"

"I disobeyed an order."

"You disobeyed--?! But... you--"

"It was the President's order, Jessica. It was a bad order. I disobeyed it and I believe it kept people safe."

She searched his face. Then she sighed.

"Well, Dad," Jessica said, looking him square in the eye, "you've really gone and put your foot in it this time."

Down the hallway, Mara turned and smiled a small smile at the sound of her husband's laughter echoing from the brig.

She continued on, flanked by the pleasant young man assigned to accompany her. Her smile melted away as her mind continued to race.

She looked forward to getting back to the interrupted movie night, but she had too many pressing unanswered questions with too many national security implications.

She kept trying and failing to shunt her mind away from all the implications of the night's events.

Entering the mess hall, her eyes scanned the room for the vending machine when she saw Dr. Carruth.

"Lashawna!" Mara called out. "How long have you been here? I didn't know they'd flown you in that fast."

"It's a secure installation, Dr. Mercury," said Dr. Carruth, her mouth full. "Guess word doesn't get around."

Mara slid into the bench across from the other woman. "Lashawna, I have to know."

"Are you read in on ASTRAL LARK?"

"Are you referring to the code word clearance for the thing I shot and captured that mangled my husband's leg and the bigger one that knocked down the Golden Gate Bridge? Then no, I am not read in."

Dr. Carruth grimaced. "Mara, you know better. We have babysitters even. I can't--"

Their 'babysitters' didn't look particularly anxious to listen closely to their conversation, but Mara shook her head in resignation anyway.

"Look, I know. I know. But I just have to know. This is clearly some kind of engineered organism. So what, then? Is this Cas14? Has China scaled up Doctor's Zhou's novel xenotransplantation technique?"

Dr. Carruth started to shake her head before catching herself. "I-- look. I won't talk about anything classified, but I'll talk about what's on my mind, speaking in broad terms. Sometimes there's bullies out there who have more resources than you do. If they're just going to stomp all over you no matter what, then that's what was always going to happen."

Mara's brow creased. Dr. Carruth continued.

"If you just lay down and let it happen then you can't capitalize if you get a lucky break, like they make a mistake or you find an exploitable weakness." She sipped a canned drink. "My dad was a pilot, and when he was talking about emergency landings, he'd always say, "When faced with a forced landing, fly the airplane as far through the crash as possible." Sometimes things seem hopeless, but you have to keep going because not doing anything can only make things worse."

Mara swallowed. "This isn't doing a lot to reassure me about these things, Lashawna."

Dr. Carruth deadpanned. "Things? What things? I wouldn't risk my clearance talking about something classified. I'm just talking about my postdoc."

Mara laughed politely. Then her eyes widened and she pointed at one of the screens mounted on the mess hall's walls.

On the television screen, the President of the United States began to speak.

My fellow Americans, this day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country.

At 7:18 PM this evening, San Francisco came under attack from an entity that destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge. Hundreds of lives were lost in this brazen assault on one of our country's greatest symbols of freedom.

At 8:08 PM, a Navy submarine launched a surgical strike with an advanced hypersonic missile designed to maximize damage to the creature while minimizing collateral damage. Thanks to this administration's brilliant strategy and tactical response, our attacker has been soundly defeated. America is safe again.

I have conferred with my spiritual advisors to understand the nature of this Satanic adversary. I can tell you all tonight that this monstrous thing was not of God and it was not of this world.

The power of prayer has and always will prevail against these agents of darkness. Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we must not fear these godless things of the abyss, for the Lord is our shepherd and we shall not want.

America will always prevail against the demonic forces of evil arrayed against it. So long as I am President, America will never--

"Get that garbage off my screen," Shyamala said.

The feed cut off, and she shook her head, muttering. "He's really taking credit. That..."

She stood straighter, looking around the room. She spoke aloud, raising her voice.

"I want to make one thing clear to everyone in this room. That thing is not dead. The threat has not passed. This mission is not over.

"I want SIGINT trucks sweeping every inch of the North Beach. Follow up on everything. Any unauthorized signals are to be treated as potential hostiles until confirmed otherwise."

Her fingers itched to type, to reach out and gather information herself, but she forced herself to delegate. "How many of the little guys have we brought in so far?"

The officer she spoke to typed quickly before speaking. "Looks like they just brought in the eighth one. Dr. Carruth is on her way to the morgue now."

Shyamala glanced around the room, taking in the various threads of investigation and cleanup.

She gave a few more cursory orders, then went to meet Dr. Carruth and the latest ASTRAL LARK specimen in the morgue.

As she entered the cold room, Shyamala saw Carruth getting started. Carruth hadn't waited long to start cutting, it seemed.

The thing was apparently dead, but had been secured to a gurney with loops of steel cable anyway.

The gurney was wrapped in a protective plastic bubble, and Carruth was reaching into gloves built into the plastic. She was holding an electric saw that splattered splashes of blue inside the plastic bubble.


The doctor stopped cutting and looked up. "Ah, you must be Commodore Omar. Doctor Lashawna Carruth. I'm a little busy here."

"I can see that." Shyamala looked at the thing grimly. "Anything new to report? I understand you've taken a few of these things apart now."

"Oh, I can do better than that. I can put them back together again." She sighed shakily and pointed at the carapace of the thing she'd been cutting into. Something that looked like molten black rubber was filling the gaps and hardening.

"So, how is it doing that, Doctor? In English, please?" Shyamala raised her eyebrows.

The doctor opened her mouth and raised her hands.

"Honestly? This isn't ten years beyond our capabilities, Commodore. This isn't like fusion power, thirty years away. This is a hundred years beyond our capabilities. Or a thousand."

Shyamala nodded slowly, watching the carapace of the seemingly dead thing sealing up.

"All right. So how do we kill it?"

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