XXVI. Break It Down

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It had taken a lot of phone calls, texts, and cajoling, but within the hour Sarah had found a grad student willing to lend them his expertise and a microscope.

Jason was utterly thrilled. Dave dutifully grabbed B-roll and kept a sharp eye out.

The man had let them into a locked side door of a university building, through empty hallways and into a basement laboratory.

"I want to thank you again for meeting us so late on a Friday on such short notice," Adam said. "We like to chase down stories as they happen, you know?"

"I do," the bespectacled man said, squinting at a slide. "I saw you and Mr. Williams get up close and personal with that thing. Have you seen the, ah, the autotuned--"

Sarah didn't roll her eyes, but it was by will alone.

"I have," Adam said, flashing a winning smile. "We're very happy to have your assistance, Mister Waters, and if this lead turns out to be something, we're all set up to interview you right now."

The man straightened his bow tie with a pleased smile at that. "You know, I've actually been on television before--"

Sarah judged that Adam had spent long enough doing the good cop thing, and stepped in.

"Do you think you can take a look at this thing before it's entirely liquefied? It's turning into soup as we speak."

Waters frowned and adjusted his glasses. "Yes, about that. How long ago did you say this specimen was collected?"

"Barely an hour ago. It didn't look like this then. And, please, careful not to touch it. Our source was extremely concerned about anybody touching it."

He nodded at her warning, then turned, slid the slide under a microscope, and adjusted its magnification and focus. After several minutes, he frowned.

"If I were just looking at this sample without context, Miss, I would be disinclined to believe you that it had been collected today. It appears cellular structure has broken down entirely. Invertebrate sea life decomposes quickly, you understand, but this decay is so advanced as to suggest this specimen was collected days ago and left unrefrigerated."

Adam stirred. "We all saw Doctor Avery take that jellyfish off the shore and put it in that bag. It looked like it had little things swimming in it, and it behaved like glow-in-the-dark material when it was exposed to bright light."

Waters made a hrmm sound. He rolled his chair to reach into a drawer several feet away and pulled out a compact LED flashlight.

"This one puts out over a thousand lumens," he said. "Would you terribly mind--?" He gestured at the light switch and Jason obliged, casting the laboratory into darkness.

Waters shone the flashlight directly onto the slide, covering one eye with his free hand to preserve his night vision. Then he turned off the flashlight and opened his other eye.

There was no answering glow from the material on the slide.

As Jason turned the light back on, Waters sat back and hmmmmed again.

"I'm not saying that I don't believe you, but it is difficult to make many deductions based on this specimen."

"Okay. So what can you tell us? What would make it decompose quickly like that?" Sarah pressed him.

He blew out his cheeks. "It looks like it's been digested from the inside out. Its pH looks normal, like this was enzymatic and every cell in the organism underwent apoptosis simultaneously. I'd need to do some tests, but it's possible it's infected with some kind of virus. Or maybe it was exposed to something that caused it to essentially sting its own body and dump all the toxins out of its nematocysts. You're sure this is the same one you saw collected today?"

Sarah nodded. "Yep. We were all there. Dave's got some B-roll of the shore."

Waters straightened. "Can I see it?"

They crowded around the tablet-sized electronic viewfinder.

The little screen showed the beach from earlier. They watched in silence for long minutes, then Waters stabbed a finger out.

"Wait. Pause. There. Can you zoom in?"

"Not very much on here," Dave said. "I can transfer the video for you if you need to see it on a bigger screen."

"No, I don't think that will be necessary. It's just-- there. Hmm."

"What is it?" Adam asked.

Waters was stroking his chin thoughtfully. "Well, it looks like these have been piling up for a while now, no? And look." He pointed. "All those piled up jellyfish, and none of them are in a state of decay resembling that." He gestured over his shoulder with a thumb.

"Could it have reacted with the plastic bag? Or could Dr. Avery have done something to it? Put something on it?" Sarah watched Waters's face.

He shrugged. "It's unlikely. It would explain why she didn't want you to touch it, if she intentionally contaminated the sample with whatever caused this. But it seems worthwhile to me to repeat the experiment, and if there's novel bioluminescent phenomena, after dark is the time to do it."

Jason groaned, but Sarah grinned. "We do like to chase down stories as they happen. Would you care to join us, Mr. Waters?"

Danielle was having trouble focusing on work. She'd read over the last email twice now and she still had no idea what it said.

It was pretty hard to care about university help desk tickets with so much else going on. The attack. The car thing. The apartment. Working from home wasn't helping her focus, either.

She sighed, closed her laptop, and scooped up Alan, whose mild protests quickly turned into fervently meowed requests for more head rubs.

She spent a few minutes scrolling on her phone, trying to get her mind off everything.

They'd lost their car. They'd made it onto the news. A lot of people had sent messages of support, and some had even sent money. Predictably, there was also an influx of less pleasant messages and even some death threats.

The positive attention was heartwarming, but Danielle was exhausted. She wished they still had their car.

She wished she could stop having nightmares.

Alan meowed again and she obliged him, petting him and kissing his face. Here was one monster she was happy to see.

She sighed. Agatha called out from behind her.

"Taking a break?"

"Yeah. Everything is just, you know."

She felt Agatha's hands on her shoulders before she replied. "Yeah."

"And I know I need to talk to someone about it, but--"

"But we're not even going to be in this apartment next month. Yeah."

They'd had a long and difficult discussion after the night the Golden Gate Bridge had fallen and Agatha had sacrificed their car to save Danielle. The President had declared that the threat had been addressed, and America was safe again.

Danielle and Agatha both highly doubted that, but with their car totaled, they tentatively agreed to wait out the end of the month until they both got paid before breaking their lease. They could pack up more of their possessions, rent a moving truck, and head East away from the coast.

She sighed. "I just... everybody we know is here, but I don't feel safe here anymore."

"You're sure you don't want to just go stay in Vegas a while?"

Danielle laughed. "We talked about this. It's Colorado or Texas."

Agatha smiled. "Texas is better for loading up on guns, yeah? Might not be the worst idea."

The smile fell off Danielle's face. "That, hm. Might not actually be the worst idea." She squirmed as Agatha looked at her, surprised.

"You want to get a gun? I mean, I can't say I'm not pleased, but..." She broke off seeing Danielle's face. "I mean, yeah."

"I just... before now, I didn't think we needed that kind of protection. But now?"

"I get it." Agatha leaned down to hug her wife.

"I've got you to drive the nearest car into anything that needs it, but what about Alan, huh? I need something to keep Mister Turing here safe."

"So you're saying we need another little six-shooter for our feline friend too?"

Danielle snorted despite herself. "Can you imagine what chaos he would wreak given the right to bear arms?"

"He'd rob a bank in the first hour."

"The purr-fect crime."

Agatha grabbed a cushion from the sofa and began to press it down over her wife's face. She was saddened that it had come to this, but it was better this way.







I reviewed my ongoing projects with a complicated mixture of fascination and irritation.

My global taste network was still slowly coming online. There were holes in it around the land in many places, but I was working on that. The time factor wasn't as favorable considering the timeframes the symbiote creatures operated in, but over long enough periods I would taste everything in the water, and the benefit extended to my hunter-harvesters as well.

My offensive capabilities were coming along nicely. During my jaunt onto the land I had discovered a design for a solid state cavity magnetron: a simple mechanism for emitting microwaves. I had adapted the design into a weapon, and that weapon had proven useful against the territorial flitting things. I was considering longer-ranged versions of the weapon. It could have been a useful countermeasure against the hypersonic attack that had ended my last trip onto land.

On the other hand, I had acquired dozens of the symbiote creature's brains, and had actually had to revise my estimated completion percentage down based on my latest analysis.

Communication modalities which I had originally understood to be instinctive due to their ubiquity turned out not to hold across populations. What I had assumed to be instincts were, in fact, learned behaviors.

I was growing increasingly astonished with the sheer flexibility and power of the evolved design of these creature's brains. It was almost like...


I had dedicated many resources to untangling this knot. To gauge my progress, I tried once more to summon a symbiote ghost running at the highest fidelity I could currently muster, shaping simulated chemical pathways in the best approximation I currently had of this species' sensory inputs and executive function control.



I reset the simulated brain state and tried another tack.



I reset the simulated brain state and tried again. This time I recalibrated to try teasing apart simpler concepts.


AGH MY EYES! WHAT IS... God... it's beautiful... what is-- that's... I... I want it, I want it I want it.. I can't touch it, I don't have any hands... please, please don't take it away, I need, I need it, I need to keep seeing it--

I reset again.



I reset again. Automated processes continued the tedious work. A few broad things were becoming clear, but I needed to bridge some critical gaps before I could make real progress getting information into or out of these ghosts.

Luckily, one of my major biochemical projects was almost ready to come to fruition once I completed a few more proofs of concept.

Once it was ready, I could begin bulk harvesting. Then the contents of these brains would become plain to me. I would understand how they had come to be, and how best to address them as a threat or utilize them as a resource.

I hoped addressing these creatures wouldn't delay me too long in cracking the payload and unpacking the rest of the Library, but by my estimates, I believed I still had ample time to complete my mission before the traitor caught up with me.

The alternative didn't bear thinking about.

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