XXIII. Skinner Box

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Eight days after the attack on San Francisco, Sarah sat alone in her office. She looked at her fingers and frowned. She'd taken up biting her nails again.

It was strange having so much space to herself. She'd been working elbow to elbow with Jason and Dave for so long she almost missed being crammed into a shared space with them. Almost.

She'd been agitating for her own office since she'd been promoted to field producer, but after the story about the attack, the station was far more amenable to her demands.

It had been good work. The best of her career. Of course, Adam's interview with Mr. Williams had gone viral too, and that had about as much to do with her newfound cachet. She wasn't bitter. News thrived on views.

Never mind the objective importance of documenting the unprecedented attack against a historic landmark. Never mind the hundreds who'd died.

The President's administration was reassuring the country in no uncertain terms that the threat had passed and this adversary had been defeated. He and his allies insisted that the monster was a demonic manifestation of some kind. An instrument of Satan. It was the power of prayer that had won the day, they said.

Baloney, she thought. Sarah knew she hadn't smelled any brimstone that day. There was nothing supernatural about the massive shape she had seen floating, spinning, hurling projectiles into the bridge.

There was nothing supernatural about the cruise missile that had blown the thing apart right in front of her.

She didn't believe it was supernatural. She had to admit it didn't seem entirely natural, either. She desperately wanted the real explanation. Answers. She wouldn't let herself believe that the events she had reported on were inexplicable.

So she hunted for those answers in the wash of posts and videos about the things that had attacked the coast at the same time. The smaller creatures that had come from the water.

Surveillance video showed children, pets, bicycles, microwaves, televisions, garbage cans, lawnmowers and more being quickly and quietly purloined without any discernible strategy or pattern.

All specimens were quickly whisked away by G-men and uniformed military personnel before they could be investigated by civilians. The very nature of the things was classified, which set the conspiracy-minded part of the internet-- which was to say, almost all of it-- ablaze with speculation that this was an extraterrestrial entity, a Russian or Chinese superweapon, or some kind of undiscovered species forced out of its habitat by pollution or secret nuclear tests.

For all the President's insistence the threat was supernatural in origin, the government was doing everything it could to suppress information about it. Sarah supposed they didn't want to start a panic, but the fact remained that there was still no explanation for what had happened, or any indication of what might happen next. There had been no new videos of any incidents related to the unearthly attackers.

Until now. Sarah felt a sharp pain in her teeth and moved her thumbnail to chew it from a better angle. She hit Play.

On her screen, the dirty face of a young man smiled toothily at the camera. He spoke cheerfully.

"Привет, ребята, как дела? С вами Костян!" He lifted the camera, revealing his surroundings. He stood on the deck of a fishing boat.

He gestured around at equipment happily, chattering and occasionally mugging for the camera.

"Прямо как в «Смертельном улове», верно?" He explained the fishing equipment to his audience seriously before cracking a joke and laughing loudly.

Sarah adjusted her headphones and leaned in.

On the screen of her computer, the fisherman set up the camera to capture himself and his crewmates as they operated a hydraulic lift that pulled a massive metal cage filled with crabs out of the water.

He called out cheerfully, clearly pleased with the catch. The fishermen carefully lowered the heavy cage, calling out to each other and carefully guiding it into place before disconnecting it from the hydraulic lift.

"Сука блядь, что это?" Someone off-camera called out. Sarah held her finger above the spacebar.

Something erupted up over the side of the boat and Sarah slapped the spacebar. It was an indistinct blur. A long, ropy appendage had already wrapped around a man's leg.

Sarah advanced a frame at a time, watching the thing whirl through the unlucky crew of the doomed boat. Most of the attack happened off-camera. She hit the spacebar and heard men cry out, then their cries cut off in gurgles.

Her skin crawled as she saw blood pooling. One by one, all the voices went silent.

All but one.

His legs were in frame, but his upper torso, arms, and head were not. Out of focus, coiling shapes rose above the man, pinning him.

The man's scream was thin and muted. The thing writhed on top of him. Then, flickering lights cast long, dancing shadows.

Sarah watched the flickering lights, narrowing her eyes.

Then a woman's scream rang through the air, long and clear. The hapless man continued shouting and kicking his legs fruitlessly.

After a moment, the woman's scream stopped and the man screamed again.

Or rather, the man's scream rang out twice. Simultaneously. As though the man had sprouted a second head and begun screaming in stereo.

Other sounds played in quick succession. A car horn. A dog barking. A cell phone ringtone. A police siren. A baby crying.

The thing drew up then and pulled back. It was holding the man off the deck by his head. He struggled, dangling, his voice muffled.

It shook him back and forth before stabbing him with black needles through his midsection and neck.

The man's barely audible cries went on for long seconds. Finally, with a squelch and a spray of blood, the man's headless, twitching body dropped to the deck.

The thing flopped over the side of the boat. Moments later, the camera rocked as the boat was powerfully struck from beneath.

The camera angle tilted, water surged up, and the recorded stream ended.

Commodore Omar turned to Lashawna as the video ended. Her expression was carefully neutral, but her eyes flashed.

"Doctor," the serious woman said, "please explain this to me."

Lashawna tried not to scowl as her mind raced.

You just watched the same thing I did!

She bit her tongue and exhaled as smoothly as she could. "If all it wanted was to destroy the boat, it would have led with the attack that scuppered it."

The other woman nodded. "So what did it want, Doctor?"

Lashawna bit back another sharp retort and tried not to clench her fists. She looked back at the looping video of the attack on the boat.

"It kept that man alive while it made those sounds and blinked those lights at him. Then it killed him. If I had to make a guess..."

"Please. Do."

She did clench her fists then. "This is purely conjecture. There's altogether too much about this thing we don't understand."

"I understand. Please answer the question, Doctor."

Lashawna sighed in frustration. "All I can say is what it looks like. And it looks like it's learning. Experimenting. Those sounds? Those lights? It's establishing baselines for human behavior. I don't know why it would kill him immediately afterward, but..."

Commodore Omar's voice was deadly calm. "But what?"

"It's likely it's not eating people's heads because they taste good. It's building a model of the human brain. It's learning how we think on a chemical level."

"So what are the implications of that, then? Is it going to better predict our attacks? Is there a danger it could isolate a sound that disrupts the human brain? What?"

Lashawna finally raised her voice. "Commodore, I've hacked all twenty-six of these things you've given me apart. Every single one of them rapidly decomposed within hours of death-- I'm talking liquefied-- so I can't even take more samples or readings. I've conferred with every civilian expert with the appropriate clearance, which is frankly a shockingly short list. The answer is that I cannot tell you what this thing is going to do, not with the information I have available."

The commodore looked at the doctor steadily. "I am aware that you have little in the way of actionable intelligence and little in the way of external guidance, Doctor. I am also sensitive to the fact that if you and I fail to think of something that could save American lives now, we'll never be able to get them back once it's too late. So, please, Doctor. Tell me anything and everything you can about this thing and how it thinks."

Lashawna shook her head. "I need more people. I understand the political situation is delicate, but if we could read Dr. Mercury in on ASTRAL LARK--"

"I'm afraid that won't be possible, Doctor." Commodore Omar sighed. "While extremely capable and well-connected individuals such as herself would undoubtedly be invaluable in this effort, I'm afraid I am under the strictest orders to prevent the further spread of information about ASTRAL LARK. There is a total intelligence freeze on the code word. No new inductees without signoff from the Joint Chiefs. We have to make do with who we have."

Lashawna spluttered. "It was on national news! It knocked down the Golden Gate Bridge!"

Commodore Omar looked weary. "Exactly. That means it's a matter of national security."

"That's insane."

The commodore shook her head. "That's politics."




Progress on the payload was, of course, at a standstill, especially in this timeframe. I had shifted over seventy percent of my available processing threads to prioritize the puzzle of the symbiotes.




I was more certain than ever that these creatures represented the greatest immediate threat to the continued existence of the Library. I had opportunistically harvested fresh brains when I could, but it was increasingly clear that to successfully interrogate their ghosts, I would need more of them. A lot more.

I had ideas about how to do that at the scales I would need. I had several new designs for drones to test. Most promisingly, I had picked up a thread I had dropped long ago. Soon, I hoped, I would have many more specimens to examine to compile my neural pattern model for the species.

I wasn't just bringing out my old ideas. I had teased apart many of the designs I had discovered in my trip to the surface. I had already constructed directed energy weapons based on the magnetron and waveguides I had discovered in some of the structures on the land.

I had been able to scale them up significantly thanks to the large amount of materials my harvesters had scavenged from my initial foray. I synthesized the design principles I had discovered in this world's designs with the Library's signals analysis and broadcasting module, 2IW:2YT:A3Z:00S. The results were gratifying. I had yet to test them on the aggressive flying creatures, but I had tested their offensive capabilities on several water-based designs to great effect. It disrupted many of their internal systems and made them easy targets. When targeting an unprotected symbiote, the directed energy weapon quickly incapacitated them. With a little more work, I thought I might increase the range significantly. Their power draw was high and they weren't very mobile, but they were ideal for defending an area.

Another design that gave me no small amount of satisfaction and anticipation was my first generation of aerial drones with powered flight. They were simple but extremely fuel-intensive, little more than thrusters and a communications package. The tradeoff was that they were small, straightforward to stockpile, and I could produce them quickly when needed.

I felt a ping in my perception as one of my threads landed upon a solution to the problem it was working on and I felt a wave of satisfaction.

It would take some time before it was useful, but now that evolution had converged to an equilibrium for the viral population of the ocean, I could finally reinstate a version of my viral sense. I tasted a slowly widening circle of perception growing out from my stronghold.

The creatures of the surface were highly territorial. With my next constructions, I would claim territory of my own.

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