XXV. Out of Thin Air

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They'd gotten some B-roll of dead jellyfish, then piled back into the van in silence. Sarah stared out the window, lost in thought.

Avery-- or whoever she really is-- thinks this jellyfish thing is related to the attacks. From the sound of it, she should know.

The government is refusing to acknowledge any connection. The President himself is telling people the danger has passed and that America triumphed over the monsters.

What is that guy's deal, anyway? What possible benefit could this be to him?

Dr. Avery was really, really concerned about touching these things.

"So what happens to people who do touch it? Are they getting sick?" She mused aloud.

Jason stirred. "I mean, it's a jellyfish. Touching them isn't good for your health."

"Sure, but have you ever seen anybody use a mess of biohazard gear around them?"

"We don't even know who she is. She wouldn't even let us interview her."

Sarah drummed her fingers, looking down at the plastic bag on the floor of the van.

"I dunno. I've just really got a feeling about this one. I want to follow up and see if the emergency rooms are seeing anything weird with jellyfish stings lately."

"What, are we going to have to go get a bunch of B-roll of hospitals now?"

Sarah smiled at him. "Great idea!"

He looked at her in horror. "What, really?"

"Ha, no. I'll call the communications directors for all the hospitals in the area, though. And then maybe the governor's office."

Jason groaned.

"I'll get this thing under a microscope myself if I can't get a scientist to do it for me. I'll put out some feelers on social media too. You know anybody who's good with a microscope, Jason?"

Shyamala narrowed her eyes, scanning the big screens to watch the operation in progress.

Officially speaking, this was only a training exercise. Training exercises were certainly not unusual. The three ships whose positions the screens tracked cut through an unloved and remote patch of international waters.

It was an ideal location for training exercises, after all. It wasn't near any shipping corridors and it wasn't of any strategic importance to any major country. It was a perfectly plausible place to conduct training.

The training mission certainly had nothing to do with a scrap of signals intelligence showing an echo of a signal that might have been ASTRAL LARK. Of course not.

Anti-submarine warfare exercises were commonplace, that was true. It wasn't even particularly uncommon to run the exercises with live munitions, like they were doing now.

It was a little more unusual that the same exercise had been repeated a number of times in a pattern blanketing the area. There were no rival ships in the waters contesting the ship's maneuvers, though, and Shyamala had the authority to order the execution of as many training exercises as she wanted, even if that meant the crews of these ships were getting more live munitions ASW "training" than they typically got in a year.

Her authority was broad indeed... so long as her orders didn't directly contradict an order from the Joint Chiefs or the President.

Shyamala watched closely, tense. Just some training exercises, that's all.

"Come on," she said quietly. "Where are you?"

A composite view of sensor and sonar data streams from the sea beneath the vessels was displayed on a monitor. Rings of green emanated on inky blackness while a green line swept in a slow circle.

Her eyes searched but found only darkness and echoes on the computer-filtered sonar view. Her fingers itched to analyze, tune, and filter the raw data streams. Instead, she forced herself to delegate.

"Lieutenant Cortes," she spoke to a young officer sitting at a nearby monitor, "At ease. Are you familiar with the new deep learning plugins for sonar threat detection?"

"Ma'am, I've used them before, but I'm not an expert."

"Good enough. I want you to run everything they send us through every kind of analysis you can think of. If there's a pod of whales with the sniffles, I want to know about it."

He saluted. "Yes ma'am."

She looked back at the sonar image. It was waiting down there somewhere and she wasn't inclined to wait for it to come back.

Positron Mobile🔋27% 8:08pm


Getting something to eat, text you later

I didn't see anything glowing or flashing on the beach

He was really insistent it was flashing too. I don't get it at all

Which is even weirder cause apparently bioluminescent jellyfish aren't the kind that kill you either

All cause he picked up a stupid glowy jellyfish

I'm really scared to be honest

Me too

gah sorry. i hope he feels better :C

how does your brother always

no way

I think this might be worse than the time he jumped off the roof

I just don't know how you get a fever from touching a jellyfish

He's got a pretty bad fever now

They've got him on an IV and they keep bringing him water but he still keeps saying he's SUPER thirsty

It's... he's pretty distressed, they're thinking about sedating him


tell him i hope he feels better soon!!

oh crap! awesome!!

He's awake now at least

this sucks

yeah i just mean.

Not your fault

i'm so sorry

that is so horrible

But I guess maybe some migrated or something

None of them are supposed to live around here

There's jellyfish that can kill people

i haven't even heard of that happening before when someone gets stung by a jellyfish?

that's horrible D:

holy crap

He started having seizures a few minutes later

Then he started screaming

He was talking about how it was flashing colors at him

He seemed fine when he first picked it up

I don't know


do people have jellyfish allergies?

is he like allergic or something?

what?? i thought you said he got stung by a jellyfish??

He's in the ICU

Yeah, not really

what's up? is cyrus ok??



Gabriela is typing...


Someone shouted in the control room. Shyamala's eyes flicked back to the sonar display, but the new contacts popped up on a big screen on one of the vessel's radar display, not the sonar display she had been eying.

"What the hell?" She murmured, then glanced around and stood straighter.

Views changed on the big screens to show camera views of the outside of the ships. Nothing was rising up from the waves to attack the ships.

Instead, screaming, rocket-powered blobs of green-gray flesh were flitting out of the sky. Some of them had already dropped down to hover over the decks of the ships.

"Scramble fighters and get me every scrap of information we have on these bogeys. Begin jamming all known ASTRAL LARK frequencies." She kept her face impassive as her heart pounded.

"Estimate their mass at fifty kilograms," Lieutenant Cortes quickly said. "Some kind of rocket-powered missile or drone, ma'am. They're fast, they're maneuverable, and it looks like some of them are just circling around. Surveillance, ma'am?"

Their movements were sudden, disconcerting, and precise. They moved like they were being held on the end of a long stick by a performer with incredible hand-eye coordination. They would slow to a stop almost instantly in the air, then rip away through the air with terrible acceleration.

Sailors moved to cover. Some used their firearms, firing at the things when they drew near, but the flame-emitting blobs were too small and fast to hit reliably. Their motions were impossible to predict.

Shyamala watched in horror from another angle as one of the things dropped into the air above several sailors and... detonated? No. The thing flew away after emitting the burst of red smoke.

She felt a mix of relief, confusion, and building dread as the sailors emerged from the cloud, apparently unharmed.

They were all coated in a fine red dust, like they had been dusted with a coating of rust.

The other ASTRAL LARK drones were doing the same thing. They weren't attacking directly; they were exposing her sailors to... whatever that was.

One of the sailors managed to take one of the things down. It fell into the water. The sailors' morale visibly improved as they drew down on the targets and took more of them out.

More of the things got close enough to emit the red dust and expose more of them, though.

"Get all sailors belowdecks," Shyamala ordered. "All crew exposed to that stuff will be subject to full CBRN decontamination and a fourteen day quarantine. Get me samples of that red stuff."

Shyamala forced herself to let go of the railing and stand straighter. "Where are those fighters?"

The jet fighters took to the air at her command, circling to engage with the highly maneuverable things.

"This is Kraken four. Engaging hostiles." The radio transmission crackled over speakers in the control room.

The jet came in for a low and slow strafing run, lining up a shot at one of the flying blobs that seemed to move less unpredictably.

"Kraken four, you've got one on your tail," another voice came over the tinny radio connection.

"I see him. Hold on."

The nose of the fighter plane rose sharply and its fuselage strained under the force of the hard turn. In seconds, the evasive maneuver was completed. Few human pilots or automated missile systems could match that turn.

The thing following changed directions in less time than the plane did. Its lower mass, momentum, and greater resistance to gee forces let it turn so sharply it began drawing within a hundred feet of the fighter jet.

Fifty feet.


"He's right on top of me," Kraken four drawled. "Gosh, he's an ugly son of a--"

"Kraken four, you've got another one! Make that two bogeys closing at seven and three o' clock!"

"All right, let's see 'em do this," the pilot's strained voice came over the radio.

The nose pulled up hard and the plane flew directly up.

The blobs stayed within feet of the jet fighter.

Then, sparks began to jump from the fighter's fuselage.

The plane's thrusters fired and it wobbled in the air as the pilot began to lose control.

"Think they're causing some serious damage up here, Omicron Actual. Starting to feel pretty hot in here and systems are shorting out all over. Preparing to eject."

The shapeless things tore a piece of a wing off.

There was a puff of smoke as explosive bolts blew the canopy off the top of the jet fighter and the pilot's ejection seat mechanism launched him clear of the ill-fated aircraft.

Shyamala opened her mouth to order his immediate retrieval, then closed it.

A remote-operated camera aboard one of the ships had been pointed to track the ejecting pilot, whose parachute had deployed as designed and who was now lazily descending toward the water.

Three of the flying ASTRAL LARK forms hovered alongside the parachute. Shyamala saw something reach out.

They pulled the man out of his ejection seat with fleshy pseudopods, hovering like rocket-powered hummingbirds.

Seconds later, the three things, having melded together around the man's body, sped off into the setting sun.

"Track that thing," Shyamala ordered. "Can we pursue?"

Cortes's fingers danced across keys as he digested the information available from the ships' instruments.

"Negative, ma'am. It just fell off radar and we don't have a visual."

Shyamala stood silently for a long moment.

"All vessels are ordered to disengage." Shyamala's mouth was dry.

"Pull them out now. All of them."

She stepped back. "I've got a call to make to the Joint Chiefs. I want Dr. Carruth ready to present her initial thoughts and analysis as soon as I'm done getting chewed out."

She wanted to go grab Dr. Carruth now and make her explain in words not exceeding three syllables exactly what was happening.

That thing had smart, maneuverable flying drones that were basically missiles now. It hadn't had those before. It would have used them.

Worse, it wasn't using them for anything so straightforward as killing. What had it done to interfere with that fighter's avionics? It had taken that pilot after he'd ejected. Why?

Her stomach roiled as she thought of the abducted man and the people who had been exposed. She wanted to talk to the scientists, get the answers now.

Instead, she strode off to call a senator and make a report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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